The absence of Christmas spirit is a presence in my home. I skipped out on the normal mantel decorations. I didn’t even take the stockings out of storage. My gift wrapping is minimal and sloppy. I just haven’t been able to tap into the spirit of the season. In a world celebrating a season of merriment, music, and memory-making, my internal experience has not been able to align.
My first response was to “fake it til I make it” — to go through the motions of Christmas cheer and observe the rituals in order to make the warm fuzzy feelings follow. That did not work.
A few voices in my life have suggested prayer practices. I’ve sat in my office and settled into the quietness of prayer, only to find that my prayers are laments. My prayers are calling God to do better, to intervene more strongly. A wonderful woman gifted me a gratitude journal, nudging me to acknowledge the goodnesses, no matter how small, that my daily life holds. And while it does keep away full blown depression and does orient me toward gratitude, the practice also highlights that there are many who do not have what I do: a loving spouse, stable housing, warm meals.
It strikes me that my concern has been my inability to tap into the spirit of the season, but perhaps I’ve been overwhelmed by advent: a season in which we hope for light while surrounded by darkness.
The darkness is literal in a solstice sense, in a lack of daylight hours, but darkness is also metaphorical and spiritual.
In advent, Christ — the light of the world — has not yet begun to shine. All we have to guide our steps is faint, distant starlight, traveling lightyears to get to us.
In advent, we remember that Mary carried in her self something divine that was growing and waiting to enter the world. We remember that carrying and birthing the divine is a marathon labor: it can feel like walking miles on swollen ankles only to find there is no rest to be had at the end of the journey.
This is Mary’s story, and the Christmas story, and it’s also our story, it’s a creation story. The work of allowing a message to cultivate inside one’s self, the labor of bringing it forth, the frail hope that it will be received by others. We each have a gift that is waiting to be birthed.
So perhaps my sorrow and failure of Christmas spirit are right where I am meant to be this advent season in which darkness has many manifestations.
And tomorrow is Christmas, and I have the starting place of hope: not that tomorrow the world will be different, but that tomorrow I may feel differently, which could alter the world.
As we transition into the advent season, I find myself full of gratitude and grief for the hidden things — the emotions, experiences, remembrances, and hopes that are invisibly working and growing inside myself.
I am grateful for the rhythms and rituals of the season. Many of my rituals are familiar across the country: a Thanksgiving meal with gathered friends, a trip outside the city to fuss over finding the perfect Christmas tree, crafting perfectly chosen (though less-than-perfectly made) gifts.
These weeks in anticipation of Christmas remind me of how embodied my life is, remind me that my most meaningful experiences are my most physical ones. The texture of a certain sweater; the scent of pine in the living room; the taste of white peppermint mochas in vibrant red cups. The concepts of the holiday season are hidden things — joy, charity, patience, faith. And these virtues only become invisibly manifest in my inner experience through their cultivation expressed in the tangible.
I forget that too quickly.
It’s been strung-together months of having forgotten to remember that my body needs to be inhabited in order for my heart to be warmed. Which underlies a lot of the grief I mentioned earlier; I have been in a season of depression. Depression is another hidden thing, an experience that is real and powerful despite being invisible.
It seems to me that, whereas the warming hidden things are cultivated by embodiment, my depression is cultivated by disembodiment. By overly-indwelling the intellect, by seeking an orienting goal for my vocational pursuits, by getting lost in explorations through possible futures.
I’ve been thinking a lot, this week, about Mary. I find it comforting that Mary must have also felt this tension between gratitude and grief. Even as she felt her fiancee withdraw from the promise of marriage, even as she wondered how she would provide for herself and her child if abandoned, even as she encountered the stigma of a pregnancy out of wedlock, even as her family (I imagine) shamed or shunned her — in the midst of these griefs, God was becoming flesh in her womb, God was becoming flesh from her own flesh.
My body follows the rituals and rhythms. My body is faithful to the actions I associate with advent, in hope that such faithfulness might cultivate some of the hidden virtues and lessen my hidden sorrow.
Though, if my past is any indication of my future, I will likely always have at least some measure of that sorrow with me. But if Mary felt this grief-gratitude tension as I do, then Mary is already with me, even as her womb works in the early stages of the process to bring God with us.
Normally I would record my sermon before posting it, but it is the end of the term and I still have twenty pages to write. So, here is my sermon from Advent 1, preached at St Paul’s Seattle, on the texts of Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.
We were lying in the middle of the road, soaking wet, unwilling to blink.
It had been a long day of hiking and was sometime after midnight, and my two companions and I had just been for a night swim in the Puget Sound. Once we had the courage to jump in the water, we had been surprised that each splash resulted in outbursts of tiny blue lights — bioluminescent creatures filled the Sound. I had never seen it before — each motion through the water resulted in unanticipated beauty. It was like swimming in fairy dust. It was like swimming in stars. If I had formed a prayer that night it would have echoed Isaiah, who says to the Lord, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect.”
Afterward, the three of us walk back to camp, still full of joy and laughter. One companion remarks that on a night full of such unexpected, unearned goodness, he bets we could see a shooting star.
So, with the fresh memory of the goodness of our swim, we stopped and lied down right where we were, right in the middle of the road, and we watched the sky. And we waited. Eyes straining intently into the night, fighting against exhaustion. And we watched. And we waited.
Isaiah, again, says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait.”
And we watched. And we waited.
Isaiah speaks of a God who does awesome, unexpected deeds for those who wait.
Jesus, too, speaks of waiting in our gospel text this morning. “Be on guard!” he warns. “Watch! Stay awake!”
Jesus’s tone seems perhaps anxious, and maybe rightly so, if the predictions of end times are as we have been told. His description of the End of the Age is filled with signs that are conventionally used throughout the teachings of the prophets of Israel: war, earthquake, famine, betrayal, death. These are images typically associated with God’s judgment. The end of the age is coming, and it a dark portrait of judgment to come.
I can understand how some believe that we are in the end times. Famine is present — in this country alone, one in six families suffers from food insecurity. Drought, too — globally, 1 in 9 individuals do not have access to clean water. War, it seems, is always either present or near. Many of us have perhaps intimately known betrayal, whether from an individual we trusted, or betrayal of systems that are meant to uphold justice and instead move in ways that perpetuate injustice.
Perhaps you feel as I do: compelled toward despair. In the face of problems so large, what can possibly be done? I imagine Jesus’s audience– They lived under an imperial system geared for maximum exploitation. Their leaders were corrupt. The people were possessed by fear. Perhaps this sounds not so very far away. In the face of such problems, what can possibly be done?
Jesus’s encouragement to “stay awake” and “watch” do not seem to match with the despair I associate with end times. On the one hand, watchful wakefulness isn’t active enough, doesn’t do enough, doesn’t accomplish anything. At the same time, asking me to stay awake and watch– what purpose can this possibly achieve?
As I sit with Jesus’ words, I realize that his images of God’s judgment are not the whole story, for Jesus pairs them with images of hope. He speaks of birth, of ingathering, of mercy in the midst of suffering, of a new season. Jesus says: where the world sees death, there is the possibility of new life. Where the world sees despair, there is also hope.
When we despair, it is, perhaps, tempting to give in to exhaustion, to give up hope for seeing new life, for seeing peace and justice — or even just for seeing a shooting star alight the night sky. It might be tempting to close our eyes to the wicked problems of the world and slumber in relative peace.
Remembering that night my companions and I were lying in the road, covered in saltwater– I was exhausted then, too. I thought: I don’t really need to see a shooting star. And yet…the goodness that had just happened was so entirely unexpected and so full of new life that I was certain, absurdly certain, that goodness would come again if I could stay awake. Because of course I would miss the shooting star if I fell asleep — even if my companions awoke me immediately, I’d have missed it. So I stayed awake. And watched, and waited.
So I hope you see that watching and waiting doesn’t necessarily mean being passive. Staying awake is quite an active process, fueled, I believe, by longing. By desire. By anticipation. Longing for the goodness that is to come even as we remember the goodness that has past. Or perhaps the goodness that has already happened enables us to stay awake, perhaps past memories of goodness fuel our ability to watch, to wait, to stay awake. Goodness has surprised us before, the Lord has done awesome deeds that we did not expect. And so we stay awake. And we watch. And we wait.
The cries of protesters in our city and around our nation have demonstrated that lament is the natural outpouring of longing. Despair recognizes the world as it is and turns cynical, but hope recognizes the world as it could be and turns to lament. Lament is longing, while holding on to hope that the desire will be satisfied. Lament is the outcry of those who have eyes to see the world as it could be. Lament names the ways in which we have not yet arrived and helps us get on our way. Lament calls us toward new life. This is not a passive hope, this is standing in what looks like death and searching for new life. This is not a passive stare, but eyes searching for light that seems like it might not ever come, and yet — and yet — we are certain new life will come. Christ promises it will be so, and God has surprised us before, not least of all, God has surprised us by tearing open the heavens and coming down. God has surprised us further by tearing open the heavens through the womb of a powerless, unwed woman.
We think quite a bit about that unwed woman during Advent, this woman who was praised for her faith and sang (what we know as) the Magnificat in response. The Magnificat has often been explained to me as a prayer of glory to God, a sort of praise song. But it is also a prayer both longing for and invoking a God who can bring justice and peace. It is the outpouring of hope into a lament. This Advent, I hear the protesters sing with Mary:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
As we enter into this season of Advent, this season of longing for God to be more fully with us, longing for God to be birthed into new life, my prayer is that we be stay awake, that we watch. That the memory of goodness lends us a certainty that enables us to hear and join in hopeful, longing lament.
And so we watch. And we wait. We wait with active hope, hope foolish enough to lament to the God of the Universe; hope foolish enough to confront systems of injustice; hope foolish enough to cause God to become human. We watch, and we wait, our eyes staring intently into the darkness, straining toward the light, seeking a star to appear over Bethlehem, unwilling to blink. And we watch. And we wait.