O rising Light, brightest of angels over the earth sent to mankind, and righteous ray of the sun, resplendent beyond stars, all seasons with your presence You endlessly illumine. So now in distress Your own creation implores most boldly that You send to us the bright sun, and come Yourself that You may illumine those who long since, covered with smoke and darkness here, have sat in eternal night. Enfolded by sin, they had to endure the dark shadow of death. —Antiphon 5, the Old English Advent (ca. 970-990 CE)
Phototropic, that’s what we are. The Earth, born as it revolved around the sun, takes its whole character from the regularity of those revolutions and also the rotations on its axis. Life lives, or not, depending on the regularity and availability of sunlight. A funny example is the picture sunbathers make all lined up in crowded rows on the beach, all with their sunglasses on! All earthly life orients itself to the sunlight. That is, we’re phototropic.
We Christians have made light a symbol, as almost every other religion and culture has. A visit to Stonehenge reveals the lengths a people will go to honor this cosmic commodity. For our part, we chose to set the date of Christ’s birth, otherwise wholly unknown, very close to the winter solstice, just as the longer days begin the Son/Sun appears just after the longest night. Jesus brings us the dawn, and drives back the enemy of darkness.
We use the word darkness in a metaphorical way, of course. Sure, we suffer from physical darkness, which is why in the northern hemisphere, we light extra lights at this time of year.
Isaiah obviously meant more than that when he preached:
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.
What darkness is meant here? Darkness means ignorance. Ignorance of social or divine law is moral darkness, evil because it destroys our humanity. Helen Keller was asked which of her three senses she would wish to have back, perhaps her eyesight? She said, There is something worse than being blind—it is having sight but no vision, that is, to have no moral or ethical sense.
But many of us experience a different, painful darkness, to which Isaiah and Jesus also made reference, I believe—emotional darkness. We experience this kind of darkness when the burdens of life close in on us, when difficulties overwhelm us and every door seems closed with the death of opportunity. Or when we are separated by death from someone important to us, from a spouse or a family member. Maybe a friendship didn’t work out, and we still don’t know why. Or, simple geography—in separation we just miss others whom we love.
It is the darkness from feeling unloved—we experience grief when the love we count on is withdrawn. As demonstrated in the lyrics of this song from the ‘60s (you may recognize):
When the truth is found to be lies And all the joy within you dies
When the garden flowers, baby are dead, yes and Your mind, your mind is so full of red
Tears are running down They’re all running down your breast And your friends, baby They treat you like a guest—[meaning, “you don’t really belong here with us.”]
These lines actually capture the way Christians define darkness: it is the absence of love, love given or love received. It is by any human accounting the most awful of conditions. It pitches us into a grief state, if unaddressed becomes something we call depression.
Christmas seems to bring this out in almost everyone, to one degree or another. Many of us have low-grade griefs which stay submerged all year, until the jolly music irritates and signals: oh, I have something bothering me. But Christmas, fortunately, has a way of forcing us to bring grief to the surface—it’s okay—grief wants out—so let it be known. Remaining in a depressed state is a refusal to live openly with loss—let that loss and grief be known.
Is that why the demoniac in our gospel lesson felt threatened by Jesus’ approach? [Mark 5:1-12.] This wild and distressed man has a peculiar response to Jesus-- When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” He would seem to be mocking Jesus, feigning obeisance to royalty by bowing before him, even calling him Son of the Most High God (had he overheard people calling Jesus that?), then— immediately he repulses Jesus as if he recognized his healing power and didn’t want it. Here was a man whose inner pain was mirrored by his outer, self-inflicted punishments—what an exact parable of someone refusing to let his loss come to the surface, this man literally lived among the tombs in which his loss is buried. He’s not going to be fooled into joy by this wandering preacher—oh, no!
Well, for us among our tombs, Christmas cheerfulness doesn’t match our inner state—and certainly not the fake cheerfulness of the commercial Christmas. So people feel moved to have their grief validated publicly in special religious services to address the mood. I have led some of those services in the past, called “Blue Christmas” —there is one taking place on the 21st at the First Baptist Church—only this year, it seems like the whole country is under a cloud and needs to be there.
But I don't believe we really need to have any special Blue Christmas services—I think we accomplish the same thing with Advent services. For, here we find that peculiar combination of joy and sadness, all dressed in purple, openly naming our darkness, which is after all not just a word. If we attend all four of these Advent services, we will go into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a chance for joy. It doesn’t need to be a “blue Christmas.” It only needs to be a true Christmas.
Take the advice of Jefferson Airplane-- When the truth is found to be lies And all the joy within you dies Don't you want somebody to love Don't you need somebody to love Wouldn't you love somebody to love You better find somebody to love
Find somebody to love—that’s the Christmas message. Find a new friend, find a new family. Failing that, find a cause to love, love your church. That’s when the emotional darkness lifts, and so does the moral darkness.
Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Not out of disrespect for the dead, of course; but out of respect for life and life abundant. Dead are the old ambitions, the old dreams (dreams dreamed when we looked better and felt better), dead even are old loves. Jesus comes to cast out the ghosts of the dead among the tombs in which you wander, chained, that you break out of and are chained again.
“Behold, I make all things new,” saith the Lord. And here comes the Son/Sun, rising on Christmas morning. On this Advent Sunday, we take our place in the direct line of the Son-rise.
It does seem today that we are strangers in a strange land called the United States of America. But Christians always were strangers in a strange land. Must it be a “blue Christmas?” Yes, because the real Christmas is a blue-ish (purple) Christmas. Love comes with the light breaking through the darkness.
O come, O wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and help us in that way to go. —From the ancient antiphons of the pre-medieval church
We long, we long for substance, for truth we can trust. We reach beyond data, beyond information, beyond technical knowledge. We belong to something invisible, so we are unsatisfied with the visible. We want to touch the universe and fulfill an intimacy with it.
We call it God’s creation, although we barely intuit its profound integrity.
Periodically, in the woods, under the stars, by the ocean, we feel our connection to God, but all too infrequently. The feeling can’t last long, anyway, such are the demands of the clock, the stomach, the grind. It takes a movie like Koyaanisqatsi to describe the source of our anxious, empty feelings, by showing the repetitive drudgery of technological life, by showing what manipulating nature the way we have done after all these centuries. We are awash in the detritus of a culture of creature comforts. We are out of sync with nature, having violated its order.
We have muddied our little puddle of water, we are all tangled up in our own shoelaces.
It makes sense that we are drawn here, to this holy place, the same as others are drawn to their sanctuaries. Although, we’re not sure what we’re looking for, or what it has to offer. Probably, we feel held in a place like this, embraced by this miniature representation of the universe—being a camera that lets in pure light to the eye, the mind, the soul. A still place in which to be still.
The silence speaks to us of the complete world, of God’s completeness. In here, we don’t feel small, even though we sense the infinity beyond us and the infinity within. This sacred space consecrates us, it validates us.
All the words spoken and sung, repeated in long strings of names, of images, we drift in them—the words of this Advent Sunday are--Wisdom. Order. Knowledge. Light. Joy. Purity. Blameless. Righteous peace. Justice. Godly glory. Mercy. Harvest. It makes a kind of poetry to sit and listen here—we savor it, even if we don’t understand it. We don’t have to. Because Jesus is the ultimate poem. A living lyric of unvarnished frankness, and fearless honesty. An echo of the wordless Word.
He taught us, yes, and he embodied God’s wisdom. And what is that? He demonstrated that righteousness and mercy require each other, are two sides of the same coin. God has provided for our self-correction by marrying righteousness to mercy. That’s because judgment is not condemnation. Judgement is just clarity, about what is and what we have done. This way we can regain our balance, make good decisions, and (even) restore the health of the planet. To be in right relation to God is to harmonize with the order of the universe.
Just as he is the ultimate poem, Jesus is the ultimate wisdom. He held up God’s plumb line, then made it possible—bearable—for us to stand next to it. He taught all of that, and then he handed us a loaf of bread. He told us to take this bread as if it was himself, himself who was God’s Word. This bread, to be eaten, must be broken. We must break and die, too, we must break and die, to live, as Jesus was about to. Jesus hands us manna from heaven, bread for the journey, a journey we take with the universe. This Jesus makes us know that the arc of the moral universe bends toward Justice. The prophet Isaiah said a Wisdom is coming we will want to call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
You may wonder what we are about to do now, today at this Communion Table. Maybe you always have wondered. You should wonder. It is a mystery connecting us to the furthest reaches of the inky sky, and into the minutest of particles of subatomic matter. It is the gesture Jesus initiated that cements this community, not as a group of church members but as a “communion of subjects” (Thomas Berry), among the collection of interrelated objects of God’s universe.