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27 November 2011

Advent ... stumbling toward the light

"For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” (Frederick Buechner).

Advent is here, a time of deep longing, fervent hope and joyous expectation, but also one of soul-searching and taking stock. The Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday of Advent is on the somber, searching side:

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence ... Since before time began no one has ever imagined, No ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work. But how angry you've been with us!  We've sinned and kept at it so long!  Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved? We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves—  sin-dried, we're blown off by the wind. No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you  Because you've turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins.  Still, God, you are our Father. We're the clay and you're our potter: All of us are what you made us. (Isaiah 64:1. 4-8)

The prayer at the end is almost child-like in its longing and pleading for a renewed relationship with God. "Still, God, you are our Father", as if the person praying says, "Yes, yes, yes, we admit that we have been unfaithful and ungrateful, that our sin-sick souls have lost their ways, but please remember God, we come to you as your children. Can't you see how much we need you in our lives?"

Other aspects of this deep longing can be heard in this text by German poet, playwright and teacher Rudolf Otto Wiemer (1905-1998):

Let’s assume he is on his way, he of whom you spoke, God, when those prophetic men (whose startling names to learn we toiled in confirmation class) named him “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace”, when they spoke of “Bethlehem Ephrata” and cried out, “Surely, he has borne our griefs, for a bruised reed he will not break nor quench the dimly burning wick”.

Let’s assume he is on his way. Let’s further assume, God, that we are on your mind: this restlessly flickering star, amidst our constant questions of “Why”, amidst the gloom over the nations, where hourly the blind man listens in the direction of the door, hoping to let him in who is supposed to come in the Name of the Lord, not the legend, not softly falling flurries, not bogus cheerfulness, but himself.

God, if that is what you have in mind for us, if he comes from you, if the hiding place of his birth is not too far from the slums, not far from the bed of the ailing man who wordlessly counts out the present dull days on the calendar if all this is true, let him come. Make him small, so he won’t overlook that which is small. Make him poor, homeless, and exposed to the coldness of the world. God, don’t keep him back in your heaven. Let him come.  (German text by Rudolf Otto Wiemer, 1967; English translation by Fritz Wendt, 1999)

Exposed to the coldness of the world:  According to Paul Krugman of the New York Times, between 1979 and 2005 the income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent; at the same time, the equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent. As we leave "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" behind, we realize that as Advent people we are aliens in a world that in its appeal to greed looks even more pathetic now that more and more of us are worrying about being able to pay our bills. 

Last year, 46.2 million Americans lived below the poverty line. Living in a nation where many people are slipping backward in the wake of a downturn that left 14 million people out of work and pushed unemployment rates to levels not seen in decades, why is it so hard to see that the values of this world stem from a collective ego spinning out of control. "Make your ego porous," said Rilke, "Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything."

Even though he didn't specifically write this for Advent, Carl Daw's hymn comes to mind:

Faith begins by letting go, giving up what had seemed sure, taking risks and pressing on, though the way feels less secure: pilgrimage both right and odd, trusting all our life to God.

Faith endures by holding on, keeping mem’ry’s roots alive so that hope may bear its fruit; promise-fed, our souls will thrive, not through merit we possess but by God’s great faithfulness.

Faith matures by reaching out, stretching minds, enlarging hearts, sharing struggles, living prayer, binding up the broken parts; till we find the commonplace ripe with witness to God’s grace.

Isaiah 64:1-8

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