We end Advent with Love—that heart emotion that makes its way into our souls and remains there. Love isn’t always easy. Love may well require putting away your self-interest, your tendency to be self-absorbed and your compulsion to hold grudges.
There are much better things to hold than grudges. Like the constant Love you hold for your children and grandchildren. Like the lasting Love of a life partner. Like the deep love you hold for your family. Like the soul-Love you experience when you remember a baby laying in a manger in Bethlehem.
When you remember that baby, with a brilliant star shining over him and angels singing overhead, that is when you know genuine Love. That is the Love of “God With Us.” That is the Love that dwells in us for eternity. That is the Love that helps us Love one another as God has Loved us.
God loves you simply because God has chosen to do so. God loves you when you don’t feel lovely. God loves you when no one else loves you. Others may abandon you, divorce you, and ignore you, but God will love you always. No matter what! — Max Lucado
Don’t let anyone or anything take that Love from you like the grinch stole Christmas! Don’t let your quarrels and your anger steal that Love from you. Don’t let petty misunderstandings crush the Love that is in you, because that Love became flesh and came to live among us and in us.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all people!
I’m a little short on words this year for Advent’s Sunday of Love. Love is fragile, you know. Love can turn on a dime. Or at least love can turn on the turn of a phrase A difficult conversation Or a harsh word.
Then you lose it—love, that is If only for a time But you look around for it And love is gone Replaced with heartbreak Uncertainty Bitterness Broken hearts Angry words.
Can’t get it back, either At least not right away.
Left then with Advent Hope You hope for a kinder moment To make its way into your heart.
Left with Advent Peace You look for other things That might fill your heart With calm With serenity.
Left with Advent Joy You can only mourn its passing.
But Advent Love Well, you just hold your heart tightly so that it doesn’t shatter completely Before Love comes down at Christmas.
I learned today that happiness in America is at an all-time low. A recent survey from the University of Chicago found that happiness among Americans has fallen lowere than it has been in five decades. What has caused the public’s happiness to plummet is fairly simple—living in the midst of the coronavirus. And that’s the current status of happiness in America.
But happiness is not joy. We can be happy when we find success, or a have a new relationship, or a win a sweepstakes, or watch our children graduate. Yet, even in a state of happiness, we can be without joy. Happiness is an emotion that brings bursts of intense pleasure, excitement, and satisfaction, while joy is a enduring state of being that results infeelings of inner peace and contentment. Joy does not depend on our good luck or our happy circumstances. Joy lives in our hearts, in the deep recesses of our souls. Happiness comes and goes; joy is abiding and eternal.
Still, joy can seem elusive in troubled times. No one escapes trouble. It is an inevitable part of life and, at times, all of us encounter pain, grief, hardship, sorrow, loneliness. Life brings us joy-destroying circumstances. Even Advent Joy cannot change that. We can light the pink candle in our Advent wreaths over and over again, but the pink joy candle cannot bring us joy. The hope, peace, joy and love that Advent might bring to us does not always reach us.
I ask myself: What is it in me that prevents joy from filling my heart? Why does melancholy replace joy in me so often? How do I find joy?
Often, children teach us by their words and actions. Most of them exude joy. I remember hearing children sing, ”I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” The song is actually good theology for children. It is also good theology for adults, especially adults that have lost their joy. I don’t have to search for joy after all. It is ”down in my heart” or maybe down deeply in my soul.
Advent joy is not something you have to work for. Instead, it is something that you hold in your soul that stays with you always. Consider this wise thought:
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. ― Rumi
Or maybe this thought:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.i
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
In this secondweekofAdvent, I am searching for peace. I feel a little like the prophet Jeremiah who said, ”They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:1)
Indeed, how difficult it is to embody a sense of peace when we look around us only to see yet another school shooting, yet another Covid variant (Omicron), yet another tragic example of police brutality, yet another child abused . . . and more, one after another un-peaceful thing in our world. Yet, one of our lectionary texts for this week seems to promise that peace can be within reach.
Through the tender mercy of our God, the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79 NKJV
But on this day, in the middle of Advent’s week of peace, I wonder how I might find even a bit of God’s promised peace. Peace remains elusive to me as I look around me at a world of chaos, discontent, oppression, unrelenting pandemic, fear, uncertainty and all manner of disturbance. ”I need peace of mind!” the people cry. If I have ears to hear their cry, and my own, I must own the reality that I need peace of mind, too. But I also need peace of the soul. I need deep down peace to make its way to where my emotions live.
Isn’t it true that Advent Peace is about soul transformation—the kind of transformation that stops with the decorating, baking, shopping and all things frenzy? Isn’t it true that instead of Christmas frenzy, all of us yearn for Advent peace?
And so I stop and close my eyes. I breathe slowly and deeply. Again. Again.Again. I breathe deeply and, as I slowly exhale, I feel my heart beating slower. I feel my arms relaxing and my muscles releasing the tightness they always hold on to.
I rest in arms of grace and listen for Spirit breeze that calms me. I contemplate what’s in my heart and wait silently to hear my soul’s whisper.
Does deep breathing allow the Spirit of Peace to envelop me with her tranquility? Do those few quiet moments take me to that place inside me where all is calm? It seems so, at least for a while. Interspersing my frenzied life with brief moments of contemplation makes all the difference in the world for me. I do sense Advent peace in those moments. Or is it that I reached down deeply enough into my soul and found the peace that was already there? Either way, I still held on to a few moments of peace.
If you and I are able to find that place of peace, we can then pass it on to others who need it and even to the chaotic world around us. During this week of Advent peace, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see dozens of random acts of peace? Whether that’s raking a neighbor’s yard, or taking a meal to a family with a new baby, or doing a home repair for an elderly couple, or sending a card, might we seek out someone who could use a little more peace in their lives?
When we reach out to other souls with random acts of peace, we give human form to the Peace of Christ. Christ clothes us in His humanity. We are His continuing incarnation in the world. These thoughts are described beautifully by Joseph B. Clower in his book, ”The Church in the Thought of Jesus.”
If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then our eyes flow with His tears, our hearts are moved with His compassion, our hands are coarsened with His labor, our feet are wearied with His walking among all people.
Now, take a slow, deep breath. Let it out. Take another breath. Contemplate the Prince of Peace and how much He wants peace for your life. Breathe deeply. Let it out.
Now keepbreathing, and find something peaceful to do today for another person who needs peace as much as you do—a random act of peace. Amen.
I invite you to spend a few moments of contemplation by listening to this video, Dona Nobis Pacem— Grant Us Peace.
That’s the problem, isn’t it, that the Angel Gabriel departed from her!
It happens to us, too.
Our angel departs Leaves us Goes away Just when the deepest shadow of fear hovers over us.
Goes away Just when grief has shattered our hearts.
Goes away Just when our deep, deep life losses have left us disconsolate.
Our angel goes away. Just at the moment of our most profound impoverishment, Just at the moment when we know, beyond doubt, That we will never dream again.
As for the dreams we long held hidden in our hearts . . .
Well, those dreams disappeared!
The dreams we held so closely are not in us anymore Can not be dreamed anymore.
Suddenly, our angel left And we were no longer those who dream.
Yet, we moved headlong into Mary’s story and Elizabeth’s; Life growing in their wombs; Holy Life growing in their wombs. Both of them holding the dreams God gave them Both dreaming into an unknown and unknowable journey
As women often do.
And on that journey, as we follow these two dreaming women, we see it! The Star in the East! The Bethlehem Star sparkling in night sky!
Our angel left us But courage and hope still courses inside us.
We lift our gaze still and we see Bethlehem’s star
And the dark indigo sky sparkles Brilliance incarnate! Manifested before us in human form!
The Word Made Flesh who would never leave us like our angel did.
We follow that holy star Determined. Undaunted. Unrestrained.
Because we know what we hold deeply in our souls;
We know exactly who we are —
Those who dream!
We are those who dream!
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley, Advent 2020
In your sacred pauses during this Advent season, may you find peace, knowing all is calm. Listen to this music in your contemplative time.
A passage of Scripture that encourages me every time I read it came up this week in my Advent devotional booklet entitled, “Those Who Dream.” The beauty of reflection I have found in this booklet has definitely awakened dreams in me. As I reflected on Advent Scripture each morning, God never failed to remind me that the world is in chaos in so many ways. In the year we will remember as 2020, people languished and lamented through a seemingly uncontrollable pandemic. Many people prayed, many died, many wept, and some were even able to dream.
The sacred text for this past Thursday was from the eloquent Prophet Isaiah. I have always thought of this Prophet as a realistic dreamer who never failed to paint a true picture of a world both evil and good. Isaiah had a way of proclaiming the deep need for repentance while also calling the people to dream of all that could be better and brighter. The bottom line for this Prophet was sin followed by repentance, what that would look like and what a world of righteousness would look like. Thursday’s prophetic and inspiring word was from Isaiah 61.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4 NRSV
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, ffor he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Isaiah 61:8-11 NRSV
Standing in the midst of a pandemic world with all the grave challenges before us, Advent sends us a message. The last good word in these proclamations from Isaiah tell us that our Lord will cause righteousness to spring up before us, before all nations. When righteousness has her way in us, then — and only then — will we dream again. Our dreams empowered with God’s anointing will bring the advent of righteousness.
After repentance! Only after repentance!
Look closely at Isaiah’s words and you will see anew that God has anointed us to bring good news to oppressed people, to hold in our arms those who are brokenhearted, to comfort the mourning people, to set free people who are bound with chains of their own making and finally, as the Prophet said, “to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
What Isaiah tells us after that is my dream for this Advent 2020: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
All around us are the ruins we have left behind from all that we have done to our world, collectively and individually. The politicians make war among themselves, increasing the chasm that divides them. The people put politics before unity and spew hate at one another. The white supremacists barrage our cities with evil. Some of our people protest the racial injustice they have long endured. Hungry people still wait in the cold for a morsel of sustenance. People who have no home shiver in cold porticos, in parks, under bridges. Violence with its many faces is ever with us. The Coronavirus ravages on. The teachers and parents languish in confusion and disappointment. The frontline health professionals fall in literal exhaustion. Our children ask us when life will be normal again.
Every year, I recall the text of one of my favorite Christmas carols, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The carol’s text, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day of 1863, is a poem in which he expresses the terror of peace evolving into a world of darkness, hate and war. Two years before writing this poem, Longfellow‘s personal peace was shaken when his wife of 18 years was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1862, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son joined the Union Army and was severely wounded in November of 1863 in the Battle of Mine Run. Longfellow’s words reach deeply into my soul and plant sadness there. Yet, the words are real and true about his world and perhaps, in some ways, his words are real in the world in which we live.
Till, ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth, The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head ; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead ; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
We do not fully understand the ways that Longfellow suffered when he wrote this poem. Yet, we might have an inkling that some of the words describe us, describe our world. In the end, when all is said and done, the carol proclaims that the bells are still ringing loudly and deeply, that God is not dead, nor is God sleeping. Instead God is speaking to us so that we will know, beyond any doubt, that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” And with that anointing, we will fulfill a covenant with God — the mission God has given us to pray and labor and dream God’s dream of repairing the ruined cities, the devastations of past generations, as well as the devastations we are seeing before us in this moment in time.
May God make it so. Amen.
An version of Longfellow’s carol was sung by The Carpenters many years ago. Here is the video:
In these day following the Sunday of Advent that brings us Mary’s Magnificat, I cannot help but think of Mary this week, pondering how she must have felt to be specially and unexpectedly chosen by God to bear the Christ Child. In these days, we celebrate Mary as God-Bearer, Mother, Theotokos, solemnly. What might her innermost reflections have been? Was she afraid, confused, bewildered? My imagination of her makes me think she felt all of those emotions, and more. She was, after all, a young girl with dreams for her life, dreams that the angel who came to her might have shattered.
This morning, my quiet time brought to mind a plethora of prose and poetry reflecting on Mary. I recently read a lovely three-pronged reflection on Mary written by Madeleine L’Engle in which she explores the inner experience of Mary within the context of the Incarnation-Christmas Mystery. May Mary and Joseph accompany and guide you to the places you need to be this year so that your spirit may encounter the Word made flesh.
Three Songs Of Mary
An angel came to me
and I was unprepared
to be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard
according to God’s Word,
I bowed to this strange choosing.
A palace should have been
the birthplace of a king
(I had no way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
it was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
my cloak was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
the town was overflowing.
God’s Word, a child so small
who still must learn to speak
lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
and moved in hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.
Perhaps it was absurd;
a stable set apart,
the sleeping cattle lowing;
and the incarnate Word
resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
the folly of the Lord,
wiser than all men’s knowing.
O come, O come Emmanuel
within this fragile vessel here to dwell.
O Child conceived by heaven’s power
give me thy strength: it is the hour.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high;
like any babe at life you cry;
for me, like any mother, birth
Was hard, O light of earth.
O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
whose birth came hastily at night,
born in a stable, in blood and pain
is this the king who comes to reign?
O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
the stars will be thy diadem.
How can the infinite finite be?
Why choose, child, to be born of me?
O come, thou key of David, come,
open the door to my heart-home.
I cannot love thee as a king –
so fragile and so small a thing.
O come, thou Dayspring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings
I saw the shepherds and the kings.
O come, Desire of nations, be
simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.
The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,
God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell.
It was from Joseph first I learned of love.
Like me he was dismayed.
How easily he could have turned
me from his house; but, unafraid,
he put me not away from him
(O God-sent angel, pray for him).
Thus through his love was Love obeyed.
The Child’s first cry came like a bell:
God’s Word aloud, God’s Word in deed.
The angel spoke: so it befell,
and Joseph with me in my need.
O Child whose father came from heaven,
to you another gift was given,
your earthly father chosen well.
With Joseph I was always warmed
and cherished. Even in the stable
I knew that I would not be harmed.
And, thou above the angels swarmed,
man’s love it was that made me able
to bear God’s love, wild, formidable,
to bear God’s will, through me performed.
I have always been mesmerized with the striking lyrics of the hymn, “Some Children See Him,” and the way it poignantly describes the way children all over the world see the Christ Child. “Some children see Him lily white, the baby Jesus born this night,” the song says to us, “Some children see Him bronzed and brown . . . Some children see Him almond eyed . . . Some children see Him dark as they.” In the same way, every person in the world sees Mary from the unique perspective of the world they know.I hope these words written about Mary bless your day and lead you gently through your Advent days.
May Advent’s hope, peace, joy and love touch your heart even if it is broken, calm your spirit even if it is in chaos, caress your soul even if it is grieving. Amen.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has exalted me and, humbly, His servant I will be.
All generations, henceforth, shall call be blessed.
For He has done great things for me and holy is His name.
I will probably always remember those words penned by a lyricist whose name I cannot remember. (Apologies to John W. Peterson, Anna Laura Page, Ragan Courtney or whoever helped create this arrangement. I remember the tune and every word, but I can’t remember you.)
I have sung, in my short lifetime, dozens of versions of Mary’s song that we know from the Gospel of Luke. We often call it Mary’s Magnificat. I sang the version quoted above many, many years ago as a part of my church’s Advent music. I looked through the music in our first Advent choir rehearsal and immediately turned the pages to this one that was called “Mary’s Song.” I knew I would sing it since the churches we served seldom had willing sopranos.
As November and December moved along, I rehearsed Mary’s Song over and over again, not to enunciate all the lyrics clearly or to sing all the notes correctly. I sang it again and again because the act of getting into Mary’s skin brought me to tears every time I sang it. Tears were okay, but being unable to sing because I was weeping was not okay with me. And yet, I didn’t want to rehearse the emotion out of it. I wanted to “be” Mary for just those moments and I wanted the hearers in the sanctuary to emotionally connect with her.
In the end, I prayed and left it in God’s hands, because in the end, that’s what people of faith do. Today, as we do every year, we lit the Advent candle of joy — the pink candle, Mary’s candle — hoping that the sheer joy of her news to Elizabeth would ring true enough in us to bring us joy. How? “How can this be?” as Mary said to the angel.
I suppose that in these Advent days, in this particular year, many of us have asked “How?” How will we get through this bewildering time? How can joy fill us, enter into our souls and enliven our spirits, as we bury our loved ones? As we wait for word by phone about the person we love who is hospitalized? As we touch the hand of our grandmother through the window of her nursing home? As health care professionals become almost too weary to go on while people with the virus keep coming? As we know we will not see our family this Christmas — to keep them safe, to keep us safe?
How can we sing, this year, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” — Mary’s magnificat? Joy is a hard thing this year, for 2020 has brought us grief upon grief, fear upon fear and uncertainty upon uncertainty. Yet, we have held one another close, even over Zoom, because together we have found strength to go on. Over the senseless racially motivated violence we saw on our televisions this year, we saw also a people languishing in a pandemic that took so much.
We saw politicians fighting each other over what some of them see as truth and others see as deliberate, hurtful lies. We saw children who wondered about where school would be and parents agonizing over hard decisions. We saw congregations gathering in parking lots and sanctuaries still, silent, without voices. We saw devastating unemployment and small businesses closing their doors. We saw medically vulnerable or immunosuppressed people locked in their homes. We saw people struggling to pay their bills — very poor people wanting and the very rich, as always, continuing their lavish lifestyles. We saw the rich continuing to oppress the poor, if not in their direct actions, then in their greed that, at least indirectly, deprives those among them who are poor.
The young girl Mary spoke about that, too, in the words of her Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:51-53 (NRSV)
The young girl we have called the Virgin Mary, the holy one that accepted the strange and frightening mission from God to bear God’s Son — this Mary is also the subversive one who called out the rich, the powerful and the proud. In her Magnificat? Oh yes, Mary said that God would scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty.
Subversive! Courageous! Defiant! Bold! Audacious! Wise! She was all those things when she spoke the kind of subversive truth no young girl in those days would have dared to speak. The miracle of it is that God chose a young girl who possessed the tenderness to nurture a newborn, the wisdom to raise him to live into his mission and the courage to help him stand in a world that would both adore him and hate him — worship him at a manger and then crucify him on a hill. Dr. Marcia Riggs described Mary’s Magnificat like this: “The song sows joy that is the seed of a social revolution.” Indeed!
This was the Mary of our pink candle, the Mary who would be submissive enough to agree to a holy life of chaos and the Mary whose inner strength enabled her to look up and watch her son die.
To be sure, her Magnificat has been read and sung in millions of voices, with thousands of tunes, in cathedral-like sanctuaries and in mud huts. The words have been translated into various versions of the Bible and composers have woven paraphrases of her words into hundreds of melodies and rhythms. Still to this day, one phrase remains . . .
Holy! Holy! Holy is His name.
May Mary’s joy find us on this day and in our own worlds — wherever we are, however we feel, whatever sadness we hold. Amen.
For your quiet, meditative time — one version of Mary’s song:
In Advent’s first week, I really want to feel that all is calm, but in the world that revolves around me, things are anything but calm. During this season of Advent — in the first week of Advent 2020 — hearts are not calm at all and nothing feels more appropriate to do than prayer and lament.
13,822,249 Coronavirus cases in this country. 272,525 deaths. And worldwide, 66,786,028 Coronavirus cases and 1,533,302 deaths.
Lament feels right. Calm does not. Lamenting during this season of waiting is not easy. The Psalmist offers us one of the Penitential psalms, Psalm 130 that begins with a cry to God from a place of deep sorrow, from “out of the depths.” The Psalmist also speaks to us of waiting:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. — Psalm 130:5-6
I’ve been trying to wait this year, to practice meditation and prayer that emerges “out of the depths” of my soul. How else could it be when I hear the story of five children who lost both parents when Covid ravaged their family? How could I not cry out from the depths when my own family members and friends are suffering with this deadly virus? How could I do anything but Lament as I watch my friends and family suffering the ravages of this virus that has descended upon the world?
My deep prayers and laments, as well as my practice of meditation, has not been going all that well. It’s just too still for me right now, too quiet. Being still makes me impatient to do something. When I stop moving, my mind whirls and all I can think of is all the things I want or need to do.
This voice in my mind is hard to resist, because it seems so reasonable. When I consider the world’s suffering and see it so clearly in my own circle, being still feels like a sin. With the pandemic surging, the injustice we see everywhere, the suffering people who have profound need, how can I justify being calm — still, quiet, resting, breathing, waiting?
Into my place of anxiety and restlessness, the liturgical year invites me into the holy waiting of Advent. Into a culture that places productivity over presence, Advent invites us to believe that we need to be still. Into a culture that tells us if we don’t do it, it won’t get done, Advent asks us to stop working for a season.
Isn’t is an act of humility and trust to stop moving and fixing and tending and meddling, to sit still during Advent? Advent teaches us that there are forces at work beyond our own working, beyond our own dreams of repairing the world. The beautiful reality Advent wants us to know is that even when we stop, God still works. So we really can lay down our tools, set aside our pridefulness, and wait for the morning that God always brings.
In these Advent days, practicing stillness is more important than ever, because in this pandemic winter of 2020, everyone’s most important vocation is to be still and wait — at home and distanced from others. Whether we are essential workers, working from home, unemployed, managing our kids’ education, or some combination of these – we are all being called to be still and wait this winter. We are being asked to wait to hug the people we love. We are waiting for visiting our friends, waiting to eat at our favorite restaurant, waiting to fly to places we want to see, waiting to see the ocean again. We are waiting with hurting hearts to visit our families. We are waiting with aching souls to worship together in our sacred spaces.
Our stillness in this pandemic Advent matters more than it ever has. Yet, we wonder if we can survive it. We wonder if this interminable waiting will eventually make us give up, give in and just go out. Leave our homes. Disregard social distancing. Go visit our best friend in person. Go to church — inside the beautiful sanctuary we so miss — and worship God with loud singing.
In the waiting, in the stillness, how do we find the calm we long for? In the stillness, does God still work in us? We may not be so certain about how to answer those questions, but we do know that this stillness is exactly what will save our neighbors’ lives. This winter, the most important way that we can love our neighbor is to practice stillness.
This winter, we practice Advent as an act of love and an act of hope – hope that this too shall pass. The year 2020 will pass. The pandemic will ease, and we will someday see light emerge from of this dark time. Winter’s cold darkness is not forever. Winter always moves to spring. Night always turns to day. The solitude of Advent always gives way to the Immanuel, God with us of Christmas.
The Psalmist reminds us in poetic verse that the night will pass. “I wait for the Lord,” the poet sings, “more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
Julian of Norwich might remind us that “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” I am struck again, as always, by these words . “All will be well” is her golden thought. It is a provocative saying, as much in its calming, repetitive sound as in its assurance of a future reality beyond our grasp. In these days, it is a deeply grounding promise in the midst of a chaotic, painful world. Somehow, despite our current experiences, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
And yet, all is not well. We have a growing awareness that our current public health crisis will continue in waves, for God knows how long. Schools and businesses will struggle to prepare for the looming unknown. The economic situation is staggering. And the recent murders of black Americans are forcing yet another reckoning with systemic racism in this country. We yearn for calm while we nurse mixed feelings about how we can navigate this troubling time.
Julian would understand these mixed feelings. Julian lived in isolation during a pandemic — the Black Death. The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality, or the Plague) was the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history. The Black Death resulted in the deaths of up to 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.
In 1373, at age thirty and so seriously ill she thought she was on her deathbed, Julian received a series of visions or “shewings” of the Passion of Christ. While Julian was struck down with the illness, she experienced the visions, which have been passed down to us as “The Revelations of Divine Love” or the “Showings.” For Julian, her revelation that “all will be well” was not calming or soothing, at least not at first. Instead it shocked her. By her own account, the Showings included the divine words “heavily” and “mournfully” and with “very great fear.” Lament perhaps.
“All will be well?” Her instant response was, essentially, how could this possibly be, given the reality of pain, suffering and human frailty we experience? Or in her words: “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”
According to the final chapter of Showings, she then spent at least 15 years isolated in her cell, immersed in a deep struggle to comprehend the divine meaning of the words that had filled her spirit. Just imagine. Fifteen years contemplating that one line. In other words, she lamented, how can it possibly be that all will be well?
Through love, she concluded — not that fleeting feeling but the divine love itself, a power and an action that beckons and encompasses everything, even the enormity of human suffering. Without context, without the awareness of Julian’s life-long struggle and spiritual quest, her calming words — “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” — becomes mere platitude.
No, all is not calm in these days, at least in the world we can see. But all is calm in the places we cannot see, in our spirit depths and in our longing souls. Advent helps bring holy calm as we wait in the quietude God desires for us. Advent helps us practice stillness. Even when we are lamenting “the sufferings of this present time,” Advent teaches us to trust that the sun is always going to rise, that the night never goes on forever, that into dark, long periods of history — God comes. Every time.
On the starry, silent night we wait for, all is calm.
Before we begin Advent’s journey on November 29th, I think we need start a few days early to create some peace for our souls — enough peace to open ourselves to Advent’s life-giving message. For you see, the Advent journey always has a particularand unique message for each of us. The message weaves through our spirit as Advent days move on, gently sparking tiny lights is us that open us up to beginning again, to dreaming again. Advent nurtures and caresses us until we can dream new dreams.
Since we saw Advent past, we have languished in the chaos of 2020. Held in bondage by a terrible pandemic, lamenting racial unrest and the violence that caused it, watching political rancor and division. This was the year of “I can’t breathe” and also the year when we found that we could not breathe. Nor could we dream, because the future was unknowable — not at all conducive to dreaming.
And yet, there remains this good word — Psalm 126:1:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
What does it look like to live as those who dream? The prophets, the psalmists, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and the Magi—they were all dreamers. They received, discovered, and responded to God’s dreams for the world. In Advent’s journey, we travel step by step into the mystery and awe of God’s dreams and we pray that they will shape our reality.
Advent is for the dreamers in all of us — those who dream of a deeper connection with God and those who dream of a better world. Advent is for those who dream of comfort and also for those who have given up on their dreams. Advent is for those whose dreams have been crushed and for those who wisely teach us that dreams take soul time.
In this approaching Advent, perhaps we will dream alongside prophets and angels, Mary and the Magi. Perhaps we will seek and know God’s dreams for our world.
Will you pray with me?
In this Advent of expectation, God, draw us nearer to grace, that our songs of worship might echo in the hills and valleys of this journey and also through our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a sense of peace and silence and steady calm, that the hope within our souls might be the dreams we dream, the songs we sing, and the melody of our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a vision of a shimmering star in the night sky, that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to a glimpse of eternity. Amen.