Advent in the Dark (Or The First Year….)

(These are thoughts that have been rattling around my head and that we are talking about a lot in our church community–thankful for those honest pastors…) 

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Woman with Candle    Casper David Friedrich, 18th century, Germany

When I was about 7, I took swimming lessons at the wave pool. During class the waves were turned off but on the last day of class, they turned the waves on, to give the kids a chance to play in them. I remember one wave crashing over me while I stood in waist deep water, knocking me over. I tried to get up, but for some reason I kept trying to stand up just as the next swell came crashing. I couldn’t get my head above water. I remember starting to panic, completely unfamiliar with the waves, completely doing all I knew to do to try and get up – but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t get to the surface. Suddenly my instructor’s hand reached down and yanked me above water. She had noticed I was struggling. Thank God.

I don’t remember the fallout – I don’t remember what happened after that or if I told my mom or if the instructor did. I do know that I hate wave pools and don’t take my kids there. And I do remember the panic. I remember the sensation of not being able to get to the surface.   And this is the image and the sensation of this season. This is what it feels like, even with all the good and beautiful things, opportunities, people that surround me.   I get panicky after a few minutes, hours, days of disorienting swells of grief that just keep coming.

I don’t even know how to start processing this. This Christmas without a mom. Everyone said the holidays would be hard. And I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting this body snatching takeover of grief. I didn’t know to expect that everything would feel hard, sharp, dull, excruciating. The arm-numbing anxiety of last spring is back but harder and worser. I am surprised.

And I am aware, oh boy am I aware, that my grief is occurring within the grief of our world, our broken, hardened world.

And this is where Advent starts. Advent, I’ve said it before, is NOT ONLY the happy, sequined Indigo merchandise you can buy, feel happy about and think all is right with the world. Advent actually won’t let you do that – it wont let you be satisfied with that. Advent is stark. It is longing. It is waiting. It is darkness. Advent dwells in the unknowing dark but it also hears rumors and intimations and has a dim start of hope that where you are is not the end. And this tricky Advent always ends in a greater mystery, not certainty.   It ends with a baby on a dirty floor to an unwed teenager and told of only to the lowest, most overlooked workers and to strange outsiders.   SERIOUSLY, THIS is the door of Christmas we walk through and we should be absolutely gobsmacked by it. It makes no sense, not to the untransformed parts of us anyways. Not to the parts of us that need to WIN.  Not when my momma died and I haven’t talked to her in 6 months and never will again.   Not to the Aleppo’s that happen every day and the extremism of our own views and the unavoidable dehumanizing of anyone who does not prop us up. Through this is what we walk through and towards when we do Advent. And to that crazy story is where we look.

Hold that thought for a bit……

Advent is waiting AND advent is hope. It starts in silence.  Seemingly unfounded hope is the ground from which this season has to grow. Piercing hope for things so completely outrageous, so completely unrealistic.  Hope for things like joy, or peace, or even love. For life reunited and reconciled and as it was meant to be. Advent is stark, it is longing, it is waiting, it is darkness, it is unknowing AND it is also the action of lighting one tiny candle and then after awhile, lighting another one and then after awhile more, we light one more. We both sit and acknowledge the darkness AND we strike a match towards tiny, tiny flames. This is the practice of Advent.

Hope is a word that is sticking to me. “Hope for what?” my cynical mind keeps asking. Hope for a better world, hope for a world with no hurt? I remember two days after mom died, my 4 year old was upset about something, I don’t remember what. And she took it very hard, crying miserably on the floor. Her little, honest, wild heart was broken and I stood there and looked at her and thought, “What is the point?” What is the point of me comforting her, and trying to grow her into a loved, confident, compassionate human. What is the point when people die, things end with such finality, loss is seared into us and our world seems to be choosing death on all sides and nothing actually seems to change. What is the point in choosing to love,  when it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the world we have to keep living into.

And then I got down and held her and kissed her wet cheeks, and wiped her snotty hair. I lay on the floor with her, and with that question, and I know that what drew me to her was stronger than the despair. That was a grace, I know that.

 

What do we hope for when our certainty is stolen from us by tragedy or just by the erosion of years and hard choices.?

A few words from thoughtful people are standing out to me in all of this.  Theologian Cornel West (which a good pastor drew my attention to on Sunday) writes this:

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational,… whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”

Ahhh…..Hope looks “beyond the evidence to CREATE new possibilities based on VISIONS that become CONTAGIOUS that allow people to ENGAGE.”

Those words.

Advent hope is this: the place in which we make room beyond the evidence. It is the dwelling place of the artists and the prophets (and if you’re lucky, the preachers).  In Advent, we actively hope that there is a more true and more real ground of our being where new possibilities, new imaginations, new stories, new ways of envisioning the world stir up, and engender life. Unto us. Unto me. This the methodology of our God—hope. It is for our souls and it is for our bodies. It is for our communities, ideal and actual. It is for His beloved creation, that he is always bringing back to Himself, that is, the creation He is always bringing back to love. And he starts with hope—the hope that envisions something completely crazy—a God quietly hidden and completely with us.   And that vision has caught hold, a downright contagion. It caught hold within Mary, within Elizabeth, within Anna….It called to Mary of Bethany, and took over the woman with no name who reached out beyond the wall of complete and total rejection, just to touch the hem of that dusty robe.  And that envisioning bridges us unto wholeness, unto life.

Krista Tippet, in Becoming Wise writes about hope in a chapter she entitled “Hope. Reimagined.”

“We are flesh and blood and bone. There are those for whom this reality is not a homecoming but a matter of day-to-day survival. Mystics and monastics pray on embodied behalf of those who can’t. In a century of staggering open questions, hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world. Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to over come it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we with is to be.”

Not idealism, not even optimism, but hope is a choice in the actual truth of the situation, which is more often than not, a choice that has to be made in darkness.   A choice that becomes a practice – which maybe becomes a muscle memory.   Even when I read these words of Tippet’s I understood them. These words gave me hope, that one day I might have hope and even live within it. These words opened up a space to imagine what Hope I could have in this world of my inescapable loss, and the deep loss we all know within our human hearts, frayed and torn as they are when we answer calls from the hospital and open up the news apps on our phones..

And the essence of my hope…..is always this……God with us; presence. In this true and real place of earth and mud and consequences and grace.

Civil rights activist Vincent Harding told Krista Tippett that what what African- Amercian kids were telling him was that they needed “human sign posts.”  She quoted him as saying:

“I’ve always felt that one of the things we do badly in our educational process, especially working with so-called marginalized young people, is that we educate them to figure out how quickly they can get our of the darkness and get into some much more pleasant situation. When what is needed, again and again are more and more people who will stand in that darkness, who will not run away from those deeply hurt communities, and will open up possibilities that other people can’t see in any other way except through human beings who care about them.”

Hope is standing in that darkness, AND lighting that small candle. It is not fleeing, numbing, forgetting.  It is being with the real of what is happening, AND making space to imagine not being alone in it. The light will come, it always does, AND it does so in such a way that it grows within that darkness, that womb, that hidden seed. Remember I said that the mysteriousness of Advent leads to an even greater mystery (tricksy Advent). The promise we look towards this season, at Christmas, always comes rooted, not in some faraway place we have to get ourselves to, but right in the dirt where your foot is right now—in a real life, in a real community, in the slow, dirty work of human life and presence and love.   That is incarnation.  That is the hope He imagines into the darkness and it is the story He crafts which can “shift the world on its axis.”

That is why I stood with my husband in the dark of our messy house on November 27 and lit a candle.   I miss my mom and I miss what can never be now that she’s gone and the swells are so scary and so physically debilitating and nothing I write out could ever actually express what this feels like. I worry about my kids and don’t know what to do other than get down on the floor with them—it doesn’t seem like enough. And truly I do not know how human hearts ever recover from all the hurt we are capable of. But we light the candles, working on our muscle memory. We light the candles in the midst of the dark and we pray out loud,

“Come, imagine in us what could take root even here. More than I could hope or imagine, a small root that will somehow knit us back together, ALL of us here.   I won’t let you forget this promise, and don’t let me forget it either. Open this story in our hearts so that we can become as human sign posts in this darkness. And even as I am not sure I can do that this season, open this story up in me so that I don’t succumb to the darkness.”

Apparently words mean something–and these words and THIS WORD HOPE have meant something to me this season:

Psalm 130:1-2,5-6

We wait for the Lord, all of our whole being waits

And in his word we put our hope.

We wait for the Lord,

More than watchmen wait for the morning

More than watchmen wait for the morning.

 Isaiah 62:6,7

I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem;

They will never be silent day or night.

You who call on the Lord

Give yourselves no rest,

And give Him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the peace of the earth.

John 1:4,5

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all of us.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Ephesians 1:18

And I pray that the eyes of your heart may be en-LIGHT-ened in order that you may KNOW THE HOPE to which he has called you.

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Mary and Elizabeth

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Mary and Elizabeth by Kathe Kollwitz (early 1900’s)–

 

 

Mary stopped short of the gate. The servants’s daughter was in the yard, bending over a puddle of water. Beyond her was the goat’s pen and then, in the shade made by the rough timber beams and long grass bundled and placed atop them, the entrance to the house, she saw her cousin. Older than she, Mary noticed that her body looked bolder, bigger, thicker. Mary had known her cousin was with child. It was talked about. It was a scandal to their relatives, the ones that  they both loved and hated. Elizabeth was old, but God had seen her, so some said. And here she was, bending labourously over her basket of dung, lugging it towards the fire in the yard, talking to someone inside the house. Tears pricked Mary’s eyes. For her cousin, for herself. She felt her tears come easier these days. Everything was changed now, wasn’t it.

She felt her own baby move within her. That churning, that flipping . So close yet so foreign. So known and so strange.   Her baby did not show very much but a little. She hadn’t told her older cousin yet.   She hadn’t told very many people at all.

Mary looked back at the road and then at Elizabeth again. She was hungry.

The servant girl looked up at the woman at the gate, yelled to her mother who pushed past Elizabeth from inside the house. She came to the gate, opening it with great fuss and loud chatter. Elizabeth smiled widely and walked towards them. She swayed like a duck. Mary smiled at this fullness.

The cousins embraced and suddenly Elizabeth stared sharply, eyes narrowing. Her hand fluttered to her own enlarged abdomen. And she knew. She smiled conspiratorily but also smiled a sad smile that hung just around her eyes. She exclaimed quietly, “My son recognizes the life within you! Feel how he jumps! “ She says it happy and she is—joyful even. But there is always the unspoken knowledge of the cost of life. The cost of bringing life. The life required to be shed to bring life. The knowledge of ten thousand years passed down, always at the back of the joy. But the joy is real too. And Elizabeth looked sharply again at her young cousin. The child barely old enough to know about any of this—and yet she knows more, much more, than she lets on, thought Elizabeth.

The older woman did not ask questions. She did not pry. She placed her arm around Mary’s shoulders and shepherded her into the doorway.

“Come in. We will eat together. Our sons are hungry!” She laughed at her joke and brought her young cousin towards the seat closest to the window, closest to the dust-moted light.

Mary smiled and watched her cousin talk to her servant about the bread and she sighed.   “I’m glad you are going first, dear woman.”

Elizabeth did not turn around as she spoke, “For such times as these…..” And then, “You are blessed among woman. That child will set fire to the world.”

Mary looked outside at the little girl in the yard, now poking the brown puddle with a stick. Some water splashed onto her leg and she shook it, sending drops flying.    “My own heart burns first.” She said quietly. And louder she said, “And I am so hungry now. Hungry for everything I can get.”

She waited a beat and then laughed and her cousin laughed with her and handed her some of that morning’s bread and yesterday’s wine.

 

–This is part of a series I’ve been working on  that I’m calling Gospel Incarnated.  I love thinking through these old, truly strange stories.  The story of Mary and Elizabeth has fascinated me for a long time.   I wish I could swirl around in that place with those two women, watching it all unfold, from their view.  Can you imagine….