"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent of the Heart (Sunday, December 2, 2012)

Well, here we are, believe it or not, with Thanksgiving well behind us already, and the year 2012 fading fast in the rear-view mirror of our lives. Looming up ahead on the horizon is Christmas, like the Hancock and the Prudential as we approach Boston on Route 93 from the south.

 We just lit the first of the four candles on our church’s Advent “wreath”. (There’s no wreath there, I know.) A purple candle--  purple, the color of royalty, traditionally used to signify that the Church meant business about something; to signify something really important in Church doctrine: this time to signify the coming—the advent—the arrival  of Christ the King. (The pink one—for joy—we’ll light in week three, December 16 this year, which is the Sunday of our Christmas pageant by the Church School, so a little joy will certainly be in order on that day.)  

            So, anyway, here we are on the threshold of Christmas again. Already. It snuck up on us again this year! I bet that most of us approach this holiday neither from an all-good or all-bad direction, but rather with some complicated mixture of joy, dread, anticipation, and resignation. Here we are, almost at Christmas, and most of us probably aren’t ready. (Oh, I know some of you are; no doubt, someone will come up to me at coffee hour and brag that they’ve already got their cards for Christmas 2013 bought—and addressed.) But most of us aren’t quite ready for Christmas, not yet. Maybe we’ve already bought a few gifts; maybe we have this year’s cards addressed already, ready to put in the mail, or at least we’re thinking about it. Maybe we stocked up on wrapping paper in the after-Christmas sales last year. But in spite of all our well-intentioned vows that this year would be different, it probably won’t be. So we become a little anxious, and then a little frantic. And we try to cram more and more in; the days leading to Christmas get longer and more exhausting, because we want it perfect, too; we want it too perfect. In the words of one Presbyterian minister, we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child as though an overly-picky mother-in-law (or mother, maybe) was coming for a visit. Deep down inside, we may likely have this fear that when Christmas finally does arrive, we won’t be ready. We’ll be like Babushka in the old Russian folk tale, who is so busy sweeping her floors and cleaning her house and making everything perfect, that the Wise Men and the Baby Jesus pass her by. We’re afraid that because we’re so busy getting ready for Christmas, that the real spirit of the holiday, this holy day, will be lost in the shuffle.

            So, Advent is our reminder to “Wake up!”-- for the King is on His way. Not “Hurry up!” so you can get all that stuff done. But “Wake up!”—and, paradoxically perhaps—“Slow down!”  Pay attention—attune your hearts to why this season is important, anyway.  Open your eyes, wake now your senses, and get ready to experience the real miracle of Christmas.
As the German martyr-priest Alfred Delp reminds us, we need an “Advent of the Heart” to lead us to a true Christmas:

to shake us awake;

to call us to integrity and authenticity;

to remind us of our deepest faith;

 to lead us to respond to the miracle and mystery of Life with reverent awe and wonder.

            We need Advent to remind us that still, in spite of everything, the light shines. Love abides. And the hope that Christmas brings still remains.

            I don’t have to tell you that we live in difficult times. Many of our young men and women won’t be home for Christmas again this year, but will spend them in service of our country, far from their homes and families. There are rumors that the economy is picking up; other rumors that it’s not; in the meantime, we seem to hover at the edge of a cliff while politicians bicker.

            The years of our lives, especially in troubled times, do seem to have taken something from us, and have sapped our energies. Our spirits can feel trampled at times. The recent election may have provided some of us with a small surge of hope (or at least relief), but there seems an awful lot of anxiety in these times in which we live.

            But we gather here this morning, and in this season, as a people of faith (a peculiar faith perhaps): A faith that the spirit of the divine lives within the heart of every person, waiting, some time, to be born; waiting for its spring, to flower, to be called forth to life. With Camus, we affirm that “Even in the midst of winter, I learned that there was within me an invincible summer.”

            There is, even in the lower depths of life, a divine hope, made flesh and blood for some of us in the life of Jesus, our great brother, teacher, and friend,  whose birth once again calls forth to us.  As it has been called forth in the words and deeds of prophetic men and women throughout history—in the thoughts and actions of countless people, famous and unknown, who have—for a brief moment of heroism perhaps, or through a whole lifetime of service—lived that way which, if lived by all of us, would truly save the world.

            Perhaps where we stand now, on the threshold of December, the threshold of winter, the days can seem all darkness. But Advent reminds us—the calendar reminds us—that in a little more than two weeks, the days will start growing longer again, and we will begin our slow and steady journey back toward the light.

            It is no coincidence, it seems to me, that our Advent journey—our journey toward Bethlehem, where some of us hope to find our Light of the World takes place now, in these deepest days of almost primordial darkness.

            Christmas is the promise that our emptiness will be filled; our hungers fed; and that the deep darkness will be flooded by divine cascade of an illimitable light. It is a promise that the sad, the weary, and the hopeless will be comforted—and that means all of us. That those who wander in a strange land, or in the land of alienation, will find a place to rest. That those who yearn for truth and meaning will find a star to guide them.

            Then it is that our Advent road will lead straight to Bethlehem. The stable at Bethlehem is not primarily a place in the physical geography of the world. It is, rather, a place in the spiritual geography of our hearts. Christmas will come--  truly come—if we prepare a place in our hearts for it.

We can not make it come. We can not force it (like the child who tries to make the flower grow faster by tugging at it). Advent is not about getting stuff ready for Christmas (or getting us stuffed already for Christmas). It’s about getting our hearts ready for the Christmas within, which is often more about clearing out, than adding to. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “The soul grows not by addition, but by subtraction.” Or as the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka reminded us, “Sometimes, in order to see the stars, one must descend to the bottom of a well.” Oftentimes, it’s away from the tinsel and decorations and the recorded music—even away from church!-- that the true miracle of Christmas can find a place in our hearts.
            If we’re ready for it. If we plant its seeds. If we live Advent’s spirit of hopeful expectation.

            The deep and hopeful waiting which an Advent of the heart requires is not all quietness and passivity. Real waiting, in its most profound and deepest sense, is an active process. It’s about engagement with life; engagement in the living of our lives.

            The real waiting of the heart’s Advent is not about expecting spiritual blossoms if we don’t take the time to tend the seeds which God has planted.

            Advent reminds us that we need to first of all tend the seeds of God’s love planted deep within our spirits. Advent reminds us that are spiritual searchers, and not merely way-worn wanderers. Advent calls us back home. Back to the stable. Back to our true birth. Back to our simplest humanity. Forward to that man or woman whom God intends us to be.  

A poet named Angelus Silesius once wrote:

Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
Unless he’s born in thee,
Thou hope is still forlorn…
For Christ though a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
Unless he’s born in thee,
His kingdom thou shalt never see…

            “This is our task,” wrote the great Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes of Community Church in New York City, about seventy-five years ago. “This is our task. To seize and hold and perpetuate the Christmastide. To live a life, and not merely a single season, which is delivered of prejudice and pride, hostility and hate, and committed to understanding, compassion, and good will. Then there will be no more Christian and pagan, Jew and gentile, black and white, native and alien, or any other division, but only one human family, one as God is one, [and all of us] heirs to God’s kingdom.”

            As Zorba the Greek put it in the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis “Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die.”

            Which, of course, sounds like such a downer for this cheerful, joyful, happy time of year.

            And I admit that thinking upon our own end times is not the most cheerful thing to dwell upon. But it is our ultimate wake up call, and a reminder to the wondrous things to which these lives of ours are called. “More, and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time that all life is Advent,” Father Alfred Delp wrote shortly before his death.

            “Life is full of suffering,” wrote Thich Nhat Hahn, good Buddhist that he is. “But it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us, and all around us, everywhere, any time.”

 Each day is the Advent of its own tomorrow. At Christmastime, perhaps, we grasp that truth in higher definition.

            So, for now, we wait. Not passively, not despondently, but in joyful hope, full of the joy that only this blessed season of magic and wonder can bring, if we let it. Not lost in frenetic activity, but with arms outstretched to life, all of our senses open wide, wide awake to the call of life.

            Wide awake, and poised on the moment—the day—the season—that is before us now: ready to hear its glorious music; see its vivid colors; taste its richness and its sweetness. Ready to wait, and live, and hope, and take our time, and seize the time, and make this time our own.

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