Waiting for the Light: Readings and Reflection

First Reading:  From a Christian liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent:

(from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew bible)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined… for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Second Reading

From the introduction to Watch for the Light:

Though Advent (literally “arrival”) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ’s birth, most people today acknowledge it only with a blank look. For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called the “holiday season” turns out to be the most stressful time of year.

It is also a time of contrasting emotions. We are eager, yet frazzled; sentimental, yet indifferent. One moment we glow at the thought of getting together with our families and friends; the next we feel utterly lonely. Our hope is mingled with dread, our anticipation. We sense the deeper meanings of the season but grasp at them in vain; and in the end the bustle leaves us frustrated and drained.

Even those of us who do not experience such tensions—who genuinely love Christmas- often miss its point. Content with candles and carols and good food, we bask in the warmth of familiar traditions, in reciprocated acts of kindness, and in the feelings of good will…

We miss the essence of Christmas unless we are mindful of how Christ’s birth took place. Once we do we will sense immediately that Advent marks something momentous: God’s coming into our midst. That coming is not something that happened in the past. It is a recurring possibility here and now…

The love that descended to Bethlehem is not the easy sympathy of an avuncular God, but a burning fire whose light chases away every shadow, floods every corner, and turns midnight into noon… it conquers darkness with such forcefulness and intensity that it scatters the proud, humbles the mighty, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty-handed..

Here ends the reading.

Reflection by Rev. Marti Keller

Any other year I can remember, this Sunday after Thanksgiving, after what has come to be called Black Friday, I would have delivered, in some form and at some length, a scold about how much we collectively have come to miss the point of Christmas.

Not as someone who was raised Christian, because I was not—I was raised a Jewish Humanist Unitarian— or because I subsequently converted to any Christian orthodoxy, which I haven’t. Because, out of that Unitarian childhood, out of my exposure to the wonder stories of so many religions and cultures, out of my adult sense that our evolving intra-religious faith asks us to not just seek and see the universal in human experiences, but the differences in our understandings, I wish to honor the enduring meanings behind and the purposes of religious rituals and traditions.

Nonetheless, this year I feel compelled to bracket this annual tendency of mine– and many– to raise my eyebrows and cluck my tongue at the “blatant” commercialism that began even earlier this year.  The Christmas that sells things.

In this year when unemployment still hovers ( officially) at around 10 percent, 15 million American workers, the longest such economic downturn since the Depression of the l930’s,  the lyrics by Jerry Herman  of “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical Mame have popped into my head. The scene in which this popular tune is sung comes after the eccentric and previously well off Auntie Mame has lost her job at Macy’s, fired for never having never gotten the hang of making sales that were not C.O.D. For the first time in her life, following the stock market crash, along with legions of others, she is flat broke.

Hopelessly mired in debt and butcher bills, with no prospects for future solvency, she turns to the comfort, however commercial, of the Christmas celebration:

Haul out the Holly,
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I might be rushing things but deck the halls again now..
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet…

It hasn’t snowed a single flurry
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry
So climb down the chimney
Turn on the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen…
For I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older…
We need a little snappy happy ever after
We need a little Christmas now.

In 2010, the need for a little Christmas now started before Halloween in some retail outlets, with advertisements of bright lights and big savings, playing convincingly on the theme of light amidst darkness, cynical as it may have been.

While not so long ago, just  a year or so back, only a few grocers and a handful of discount stores remained open on Thanksgiving, this year, as one newspaper article noted, not all Americans “tucked into turkey with their families,” at least not  for the full day. Some were out shopping, it was reported, hitting sales ahead of the crowds expected Friday.

After a year, actually several years now, of cautious spending and worry over an uncertain economy and intractable joblessness, despite what has also been named as ever more relentless commercialization of the holiday, millions took the bait.

They couldn’t wait, as this season’s ubiquitous Target ad modeled, with an uber-excited female shopper covered with varying alarm clocks, sleepless, ready to be the first in line for a 4 a.m. opening.  Or splayed comatose, her nose pressed against the store door.

Many, like my own daughter, put the turkey remains in the refrigerator and the dinner dishes in a soapy pan, taking off for outlet malls that stayed open until midnight Thursday and re-opened at dawn. There it was, the Facebook posting, in the middle of the night. She had scored a few gifts for office mates, a blanket, a travel mug, and a bargain priced steam cleaner for their wood floors.

On Black Friday—the first day merchants might hope to turn a profit—in many  shopping centers parking spots were at a premium and shopping carts even more scarce.

As one headline declared, in its own theme of light- the economic forecast has brightened just a bit. With more retail sales meaning more employed people, with shopping as some sort of salvation unless or until we ever find a way to build an economy (and the jobs that go with it) based on more than financial speculation —and purchasing things.

In my own town, there is a promotion going on for every resident to try to spend $50  in three of our local independent businesses with the memory of not so distant Christmases past being of  darkened storefronts, covered windows and for rent signs, and the only thriving commerce being pager stores and lottery outlets.

AJC columnist Jay Bookman vowed to stay home this holiday weekend in peace and quiet, with football games as his company, while saluting, as he wrote “those hardy souls who do make the sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us. Somebody, he believes, has to get this economy moving again… while the rest of us sit back in awe, gratitude, and relief.”

So a kind of fiscal redemptive light there may be in this season of cautiously renewed shopping, but, as my colleague The Rev. Judith Campbell preached almost a decade ago, we need not forget the spiritual theme of light against darkness. Mystic theologian Matthew Fox, who looks for the commonalities among religious traditions, has written that to talk about Creation is to talk about light illuminating all being.

Anticipation, waiting, preparation , hope for redeeming light are common, from the pre-Christian Celtic societies who made circles of evergreens and lit fires in promise of the return of light to the world, to the menorah candles of Chanukah that brought light and  promise of a Messianic rescue to a dark period of Jewish  history .

In Christian tradition, candles, lamps, light and flames represent the manifest presence of God in the world: from the Psalms: The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, God’s Word is a lamp to the feet and a light to our path, and from the Gospel of John: God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.

This morning and the next three Sunday mornings we will be lighting the candles of Advent, which shares the glory, the holiness of Light with so many other religious rituals, and yet has its own meaning and purpose within Christianity, one of the sources of our own living tradition.

Lauren F. Winner, a professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School, admits she is a church-nerd who loves Advent. She loves the mornings in this time of year when people turn up at her congregation and bend, as she describes, over long tables stacked with Styrofoam rounds and make Advent wreaths to take home. She writes how she loves singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” in her community, adding another verse each week as they wind their way toward Christmas. How this holy time invites people to wait. Just to wait.

Bemoaning, as she describes it, how hard it is to wait, especially because we Americans aren’t very good at it, whether waiting in line or saving up for the toys we want, childhood or adult.

But still we do wait., she observes. We wait and wait and wait—for our prayers to be answered for a cure for a loved one’s cancer, for heart break to heal, for peace and justice in this country.

Most of the year, Winner tells us, while we wait we also work for the Kingdom of God. During Advent, we are paradoxically asked to stop the working, to remember how sacred a calling is the waiting itself.

Waiting for the coming of the light.

Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel, shall come within as light to dwell.

Reading

Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing on the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.

Theologian Henri Nouwen – Waiting on God

Reflection by Frank Casper

So, what does waiting mean in the era of Facebook and Twitter, where even a momentary interruption of our on-line services tends to send us in the general direction of apoplexy? What does it mean in a culture where tempers flare as you’re tailgated doing the speed limit, in the dark, in heavy rain? It seems clear, to me anyway, that even a cursory glance at the character and condition of our times is enough to persuade anyone that as a culture we’re disinclined to wait for anything. And what does waiting mean when people live in fear? I only have to mention how the world has changed since 9/11. I mean, just consider how many apocalyptic films have been made in say the last 5 to 10 years? It’s like there’s a rush of anticipation even toward our own demise. If we could wait for anything, you’d think we could wait for that. People living in fear or in the fast lane hate waiting; much less practice the quality of “expectant waiting” Henri Nouwen is trying to convey as the meaning of this, the season of Advent.

But ask most any woman who’s given birth what “expectant waiting” means, and I’d imagine she could tell you. It’s hands down the best paradigm for this, one of the most important and sublime of human experiences. Likely this is precisely why the New Testament author of the Gospel of Luke chose Mary’s pregnancy to begin his message. He wanted to convey a palpable sense of heightened expectancy. Herein to me lies the significance of what Nouwen is trying to get at. The Gospel writer deliberately exploits the thoroughly visceral experience of waiting during a woman’s pregnancy to describe the experience of waiting during a supremely spiritual event.  This is the kind of waiting that Nouwen finds people doing not only in the Gospel of Luke, but throughout the Hebrew scriptures. It is described time and again by the constant Biblical refrain, “my soul is waiting for the Lord”. And like a woman, their waiting is “pregnant” with promise.  To paraphrase Nouwen, “people who can wait like this are not waiting for something to happen. What they are waiting for has already begun. They are empowered to wait because, as he writes,

“they have received a promise that allows them to wait”. They have received something that is at work in them, he writes, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us.

In very simple terms then, this kind of waiting is an attitude, a way of living within a spiritual orientation of complete confidence in the goodness of what is unfolding.  Consequently, people who can wait like this  are attentive, listening, and trusting. They say, “I don’t really know what this all means, but I trust in the nature and character of what is happening.  The waiting person in terms of the spirit of Advent is therefore a patient person.  They do not rush from one moment to the next, robbing each moment of significance, then left to ponder the emptiness. They tend rather to be very attentive to the present, living in the moment, in relative possession of themselves. That kind of confidence can bring a kind of calm, a spiritual rest in the midst of rage.  That is why some have called this the peace that surpasses understanding. It is, according to Nouwen, what it means to live in hope.

“The spiritual life”, writes Nouwen, is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control”.

Perhaps you’re wondering just now who but a Biblical character, assuming they existed, actually lives like that? Who lives within the spiritual solitude of this open ended waiting? It’s a good question. I certainly don’t know anyone like that. For sure, I have known a few people who were serenely in possession of themselves. But they were people who had in some way been to the precipice, like having survived an encounter with violence or death.  That experience seemed to have created in them the unshakable perspective that everything else after that is relatively trivial. But what Nouwen is  trying to get at here is very different. A survived encounter with the precipice may give poise, but that is not the same as peace. To be fair, though, even Henri Nouwen does not hold this kind of faith out as a sustainable expectation of everyone. He says up front that there is and perhaps always has been only a small minority, a remnant, of people who are able to live within this kind of faith.

Nonetheless, even though we may never have had any direct experience of something like this, perhaps many of you will agree that there is something deeply attractive here, especially when considered from perspective of the always on instantaneous exchange of fear, lies and trivia that is the hallmark of our times. I want to believe that the lure of life in this spirit is among the deeper reasons we become members of a religious community; that it is among the deeper reasons we come to Sunday services or Vespers on Wednesday. But perhaps I should speak only for myself. Then I can say in no uncertain terms that when I am moved by the Moravian Love Feast, which is our high service nod toward this season of Advent, it is something about its promise that I’m responding to, the promise that ultimately, all is good, that there really is a moral arch to this cosmos and that it really does bend toward justice, and that I can enjoy genuine good will, and the peace that flows from it, in spite of the world in which we actually live.

In that spirit I want to close this Advent meditation with an appropriate scene from what could be my all time favorite film, The Shawshank Redemption. Red, played by Morgan Freeman, has just been released from prison after serving 40 years of a life sentence. It is not long before he knows that he cannot make it on the outside. He briefly flirts with the idea of committing a crime that will return him to prison, but instead breaks parole, and hops a bus headed for a small Mexican town on the Pacific coast to be re-united with his friend Andy, played by Tim Robbins. On the trip, gazing out at the passing landscape, he has this to say to us.

I find I am so excited I can barely
sit still or hold a thought in my
head. I think it is the excitement
only a free man can feel, a free
man at the start of a long journey
whose conclusion is uncertain...
I hope I can make it across the
border. I hope to see my friend
and shake his hand. I hope the
Pacific is as blue as it has been
in my dreams.

(beat)

I hope.