First Sunday of Advent

As every woman who has been pregnant knows, there comes a time when, no matter how tired and uncomfortable, swollen ankles or not, a deep urge to clean house rises from places primaeval. Often called "the nesting instinct," the compulsion was so strong a few days before my youngest daughter's birth that I canceled house guests so I could organize my closets. To this day, I feel a twinge of regret I just didn't have them down no matter what.

The liturgical season of Advent is set aside so that we may welcome anew the Spirit of the Christ child, preparing ourselves for the miracle of a personal incarnation which brings peace, freedom, forgiveness and joy. But as anyone who has cleaned house knows, the process is not always pleasant. To get deep into corners may require opening up some boxes tucked away in hopes of being forgotten, or scrubbing grimy layers formed by neglect. God, in his desire to fill us more and more with his love, gently nudges us to open up each room, each closet, each cupboard so that it may be refurbished and infused with new life. 

When I think about the courage that it takes to be open to God's Spirit in our lives, I am inspired by my daughter, Aletheia. About two years ago she took up ink and yupo and began to create art that came straight from her soul. We were all caught off-guard by the intensity, color and movement that jumped off the page. Soon her apartment was stacked with art supplies, canvases, and frames. I've pulled a few of her pieces into a slide show above.

Aletheia, whose name is Greek for truth, talks about her art this way: Art has become the agent for freedom in my life. I was bound by perfectionism, control, and inadequacy; painting has allowed me to get messy with my hands and be ok with messiness in my heart.

It's this same willingness to embrace the messy that I think Rumi is getting at in his poem The Guest House. Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi mysic, knew the wisdom of what we might call the spiritual exercise of reflection, sitting quietly with our experiences. In this state, our thoughts and emotions are to be welcomed, invited to a cup of tea while we listen to what they tell us of our past hurts or present joys. By welcoming these unexpected visitors with grace we will be led to new freedom; allowing the violent sweeping will only clear us out for a new delight.


The Guest House
Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! 
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Note: Aletheia's art can also be found here.
 
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and all authority will be given to him. He shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to his rule.  Isaiah 9:6


As I sat in the service yesterday morning, the fourth Sunday of Advent, the first day of Christmas, I found myself struck again by the first line of the opening prayer:

Lord, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid.

There is no heart, no desire, no longing that is unknown to God; no language not understood, no experience that God cannot imagine now that He has lived among us. He became a child for all of us, so that each of us could become a child of God.
 
As any mother knows, there is a time in the pregnancy when you are weary of the wait. Your body needs navigational lights to maneuver around furniture, your ankles start swelling, and the body parts (feet and elbows, perhaps even the head) of the darling unborn child are jamming themselves into uncomfortable places between ribs or on top of a bladder. The once glowing face starts looking pale, as broken nights of sleep pile up on one another.

I imagine that Mary's pregnancy was not much different. Besides the physical discomfort, she had the additional burden of the suspicious and gossip-producing manner in which her pregnancy began. I wonder if the Nazareth community ever bought the story of the angel, or if she and Joseph moved through their days in a pesky buzz of snide comments.

The Epistle reading from yesterday's lectionary included this phrase: "to God who is able to strengthen you." Did Mary feel she was on the edge of her endurance as she rode her way into Bethlehem, jostling amongst the family and relatives attempting to deal with the influx of out-of-town visitors? It is true that the power of God came upon her to bring about the conception of the Godchild, and yet it was the ongoing power of God that she would need from that day forward: physical stamina, emotional strength, determination of will to stand firm in her commitment to be the Lord's "handmaiden."

"Breath of heaven, hold me together, be forever near me," begins the familiar song by Amy Grant. And this is our prayer when we are stretched to the point of thinness, nerves raw, emotions spent, and still the pain of childbirth to endure. We pray for grace while we continue to ask: Will the waiting ever end? Will the end be worth the wait?

The mother knows the answer to this question. Pushed to the edge, she is grateful for the pain of contractions signaling an end to the period of gestation. Anything is better than this infernal heaviness, awkwardness, sleeplessness. She is ready, as was Mary, as are many of us. As we move into this last week of Advent, perhaps we find ourselves praying, as Mary must have, for the strength to make it past the transition pains, through the pushing, and on to the birth. For we believe, as did the mother of God's Christ, that the promise is worth the wait.
 

The Old Testament Scripture yesterday morning came from Isaiah 40. This beautiful psalm, which you can read here, has long been one of my favorites. Handel was so struck with the following verses that he chose them for the opening recitative and aria of his famous oratorio, the Messiah.

Comfort, comfort my people,
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
   that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

The Israelites are in exile, far from home, living out the consequence of ignoring the ways of God. This exile is never meant to be a permanent condition; it is rather a holy "time-out" of sorts, offering a restart for a nation that has gone astray. Now that time is coming to an end and God is letting the exiles know a change is coming. Finally, there is good news, an announcement that is mean to bring comfort to the hearers.

Which of us doesn't find ourselves from time to time in need of comfort? We feel burdened, depressed, weary or overwhelmed. Perhaps it is a result of our own foolishness, or poor choices, but perhaps it is not our "fault," simply a result of being human, part and parcel with the brokenness we share with our fellow-travelers. When we're in need of comfort, the last thing we want is someone to poke a finger, to attach blame, to sneer and say "I told you so." What we need is compassion and help.

Each Sunday, the Anglican liturgy begins with this prayer:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

To have our hearts laid bare can be a very scary thing - all our desires known, all our secrets out in the open. Unless the one who is doing the looking is full of compassion. Isaiah tells us a few chapters later that when the Messiah arrives, he will come  gently, "not snuffing out a smoldering wick, nor breaking a bruised reed." (Isaiah 42) And so it is with Jesus. He does not come to condemn, he tells his disciples. Mankind is already suffering the consequences of brokenness. One Sabbath morning, given the platform in a local synagogue, He offers these verses from Isaish 61 to describe his calling: 

The Spirit of the  Sovereign Lord is upon me,
   for the Lord has anointed me
   to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
   and to proclaim that captives will be released
   and prisoners will be freed.

The Advent of Jesus is characterized by compassion. But Jesus doesn't only bring comfort, he also learns what it means to need comfort. By taking on flesh, Jesus embraces the suffering of humanity. He can empathize with us now, because He became one of us then. God no longer offers compassion only from a parental viewpoint, but also as one who has lived in the trenches, experienced the hurt, betrayal, disappointment and grief that are part of the human condition. The comforter is able to comfort from within the system, which means that we can trust in an even deeper way the God to whom we come.

The healing and rest, the restoration that God envisions, continues with the advent of Spirit. And so the prayer above includes the phrase: "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy name." As we wait for the Spirit to work in our lives, opening ourselves in vulnerability to the gentle touch of infinite love, we know we will receive new breath, new life. We hope and anticipate being made whole, having our worth restored so that we may live out our vocations to the glory of God.
 
Mankind healed and empowered to live fully in love is the eternal hope and inifinite desire of God. It was this incomprehensible yearning that set the Advent of the Christ into motion. "For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven" we affirm as we recite the Nicene creed. And so this advent season we wait, with God, for God to get what God wants: ourselves, healed, filled, complete, seen to be of inestimable worth. And we join in hope as we sing with the angels, "Glory to God in the highest." 
 
Picture
'Mary With Child'. oil on linen panel by Kay Eneim

The First Sunday of Advent, a liturgical season celebrated in many congregations, was yesterday. During Advent, Christians anticipate the coming of Christ, not only remembering his birth in Bethlehem, but aware that one day He will come again as King, to rule in peace and justice. But waiting characterizes much of the life of a Christian, for we find ourselves waiting each day for the signs of incarnation in us, for the quickening of that same spirit which overshadowed the young Jewess we know as Mary.

Waiting has its challenges. It is hard when you know what you are waiting for - a graduation, a wedding, a visit from friends or a long-expected vacation. But it is even more difficult when you don't know exactly what is in the future, only that things aren't now what they will be. For the past seven years, I've felt like that's been my story, as I've entered this period of life, waiting for something to emerge, waiting to become someone whom I don't yet know, and yet a person who will be more authentically me than I've ever been before.

In "The Heart Aroused," David Whyte quotes a poem by Rilke in which he describes his life as a rest between two notes. Here is a portion of the poem:

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because death's note wants to climb over-
but in the dark interval, reconciled,

they stay there trembling.
        And the song goes on, beautiful. (trans Robert Bly)

Rilke sees the note before and the note to come as discordant, and in that uncomfortable clash exists a real danger that he will be overrun by death. Perhaps Rilke is not speaking so much of a physical death here, as the despair or depression that comes when one feels "out of tune", unaligned, fragmented. We feel that we have entered a dark night of the soul, and don't know what to do, or how to bring our lives back into harmony.

The tension of these dark times can be frightening, or paralyzing. But they offer us a challenge, an opportunity to go deeper, to reach a different level of integration. Donald Epstein has written on this in his book, "The 12 Stages of Healing." In Stage 8 he describes coming to the place of emptiness.
 
"Many people believe that emptiness is a lifeless void of nothingness that leads to emotional or mental paralysis. However, emptiness, when timed correctly in the healing process, leads to freedom...It serves as the space of transition..." 

The season of Advent is a season of waiting. It is a season of transition, of darkness, of longing for what is not yet here. But we need not be fearful. Instead we can learn how to breathe during these periods of our lives, to wait with patience and hope. As we approach these "advents" with expectancy, aware that something is forming deep in a mysterious womb, we can rest, knowing that, in the fullness of time, God's handiwork will be revealed. And the song will go on, beautiful.
 
...includes yourself. So I'm taking a quiet day today. However, I'll take a moment to mention that I've contributed several essays to "Our Savior Come: An Advent Companion" which is now available at Amazon.com. Although Christmas is still more than a month away, Advent is coming up soon. "Our Savior Come" offers a fresh collection of essays, discussion questions, and ideas to encourage reflection and suggest activities as you walk (or run) through the Christmas season. For more info, click on the book cover located in the sidebar.