First Sunday of Advent (Year B)
Isaiah 64:1-9 † Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 † 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 † Mark 13:24-37
There is no less light in the world. I understand this may be difficult for us to imagine on these days in our Pacific Northwest when light seems to be such a scarce commodity. The comments began soon after we said goodbye to Daylight Saving Time and gave ourselves that extra hour of sleep—a brief reward for the inundation of darkness that now affords us only 8 hours and change of this dripping, gray miasma we now call daylight. If you commute, you probably go to work and come home in this blanket of darkness. The same is true for school. It can be overwhelming. Especially so, perhaps, this year.
But, unless you believe in a flat earth, and the heavens as some kind of a literal canopy above it, we know this is simply a matter of perspective. There is no less light in the world. We are simply spending more time in the shadows these days as our earth has begun that part of its travels around the sun that radiates more energy and light on the southern hemisphere than the northern.
It’s a matter of perspective. The sun shines just as bright. The light is there, along with the dark. It always is. It’s just that we don’t get the same angle on it that we do in those July days when the light lasts for 16 hours and the darkness is almost non-existent to those of us who go to bed by ten or wake up after five.
It’s a matter of perspective, and timing, this relationship we have to darkness of all sorts. There is this tension in us, we creatures who live on this fragile earth. Call it circadian if you wish. We are circadian Cascadians, you and I. We are defined and limited and bounded in time and space. We oscillate between wanting to tear down and wanting to construct. Sometimes the first is necessary in order to do the second. Sometimes that destructive voice is just the first voice—the voice of pain and isolation and vulnerability that wants to tear open the heavens and let the light shine through the darkness, that wants the earth to shake so someone else might feel what you feel, that wants others to taste the tears that have been your bread for so many nights under these stars. Parker Palmer captures this insight, I think, when he suggests that violence “is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.”
So Mark imagines what Isaiah craves: The stars begin to fall when God tears through the fabric of the heavens to come down to earth to fix everything. Wouldn’t that be some good news! All the abusive and opportunistic powers of the world, all the lesser lights give way to the one true light, the one true power, the one true Love that can fix all that is broken.
As this longing and the ache that is its constant companion is voiced, and more importantly, I suspect, as it is heard and felt and seen and acknowledged, it gives way to language that elevates and emboldens and builds, that peers into the cracks that this longing and this pain has broken open to see the light that has been there shimmering all along—always burning, but eclipsed, always glowing, but prevented from shining through.
The light is always there, beloved children of God. Our challenge is seeing it, finding our way into its path.
Now, let’s be clear. To say that there is always light is not to say that there is no darkness. It’s not to say that what we know isn’t real, and that there are real consequences to what we know. In fact, there are. And this makes our perspective and this truth-telling all the more important because our well-being depends on it.
Let’s say it another way. It’s not that what we know isn’t real. It is. But there is much that we don’t know, or don’t remember, that is also real. And it’s that memory that matters. That’s what we need as we journey toward Christmas with all its false promises. That’s what this stumbling journey requires—movement and memory, of a further shore, a brighter season that helps us to see what was happening and what was real all along.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander says we need words that shimmer. I love that image—especially in this season of stars. We need powerful words that can convey real truth, that have the force of action, that become virtues in and of themselves.[i] We need words that shape our understanding, that remind us of what is true in season and out of season, that carry us to that further shore. It is essential for our survival.
It is what Jesus means, I think, in Mark’s gospel, when he says to keep awake, to be alert, to live in expectation. It’s what the Christmas child represents—the humility to be planted and vulnerable in what you know, while living expectantly for discoveries yet to come.
It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but gratitude is one of the first and most essential ingredients. You see it in Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful word-painting in the worship aid:
I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place. We are a motley crew, distinguished not only by our inability to explain ourselves to those who are more certain of their beliefs than we are but in many cases by our distance from the centers of our faith communities as well. Like campers who have bonded over cook fires far from home, we remain grateful for the provisions that we have brought with us from those cupboards, but we also find them more delicious when we share them with one another under the stars.[ii]
Taylor unpacks many things here that speak to contemporary Christian faith. She names the uncertainty that comes with displacement. It is what comes for those of us who have left behind a faith tradition that failed to keep up with our experience and understanding, that couldn’t accommodate the other travelers we met along the way. And it comes for those of us who have stayed, and yet feel so far from the homes we never left.
So, either way, we’ve found ourselves far away from the homes and cupboards that nurtured and fed us. And yet, as we gather around new fires of adventurous longing and patient curiosity we encounter others whose stories open us to the virtues of our own. As we listen generously, with a humility that isn’t about getting small, but about encouraging others to be big, we discover, growing within us, gratitude for all that is, delight for the light that shines in season and out of season. Perhaps we find these lesser lights all the more compelling as they shimmer on in the long darkness.
There is no less light in the world. It is there as it always has been. And perhaps it is the light in you especially that we are waiting for, that will feed and replenish and strengthen us for the journey under these stars.
[i] Some of this language is drawn from Krista Tippet’s On Being resource “Better Conversations: A Starter Guide.” Retrieved on December 1, 2017 from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52e04689e4b06ba19ad5a957/t/58dc17b06b8f5bc401f98a61/1490818992256/onbeing_ccp_guide_20mar2017.pdf.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (HarperOne, 2012), 224.
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