Advent wins my award for the least understood season of the Christian Church year. It probably doesn’t even come up on the radar screen of nonbelievers, since it can be rather obscure. To many who are not familiar with the liturgical tradition, Advent is nothing more than the countdown to Christmas, sort of an “only 12 more shopping days left” reminder to focus on what really matters: buying those gifts!
Even for individuals who work to honor the season, it can be difficult. For starters, the liturgical music for Advent pales in comparison to those beautiful Christmas carols. Seriously, after O Come, O Come Emmanuel, what is there?
Then there are those prophets featured in the season’s liturgical readings. Oh my!
While Isaiah can paint beautiful portraits, if you read carefully you find yourself asking, “We’re supposed to do what to help ensure the Peaceable Kingdom?” As my friend and mentor Frank Wade once said in response to Isaiah, “Our job is not just patching up the victims of violence and developing elaborate systems to keep anger at bay. Our job is eliminating violence and danger, replacing them with harmony and trust.” No small task there.
And, of course, John the Baptist can be an especially tough pill to shallow. He’s the original fire-and-brimstone preacher. Again, Frank has a good description of this righteous and angry man who was “keenly disappointed in the ways of the world and the habits of people. Like many before and after him he was sure that God felt the same way.” So, John the Baptist — as we get to read during these Sundays in Advent — proclaims the anger of God “in chilling, axe-whacking, chaff-burning, fruit-rotting terms.”*
Even though John the Baptist was essentially wrong, it can all seem too hard to take, so we grab another cup of eggnog and get primed for the 25th.
Fortunately, there are many good resources to help us walk this season, and we’ve been using one in our family this year. Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas (1998) by Jan L. Richardson is a series of daily meditations and blessings for the Advent and Christmas seasons. The author’s original artwork, reflections, poetry, and prayers accompany the reader from the beginning of Advent through the Day of Epiphany which celebrates the arrival of the Magi, inviting us to encounter the God who dwells in darkness as well as in daylight. Richardson writes that Advent is a season when something is on the horizon, but it is easy to miss, especially as we live our lives comfortably ensconced within the lines of our limited vision. In her meditations, she encourages us. Stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder.
Advent is about patience.
The quickening night and winter shadows lend themselves to these types of responses. Richardson writes in a meditation entitled Shadow Goddess that we are…
…taught to know a God who lives in a blaze of glory, a deity so dazzling that humans who dare to gaze upon the firey presence rarely live to tell the tale. There is something startling about a deity who dwells also in shadow, who chooses and creates the night again and again, who hallows the waning hours. I want to know her, this presence who goes with us as day gives way to darkness.
The blessing that follows the meditation The Moon is Always Whole continues to focus on shadow and darkness.
God of the two lights, I love the sun, its revealing brilliance, its lingering warmth; but in the dark of night, let me learn the wisdom of the moon, how it waxes and wanes but does not die, how it gives itself to shadow, knowing it will emerge whole once more.
For the last week of Advent, Richardson writes that we see the signs,
…but cannot always divine their meanings. You call us to move forward not always knowing whether what we grasp in our hands will prove to be a seed of hope or a thorn in our flesh. Train our fingers, that what brings life we may with persistence hold, and that which wastes our souls we may with grace release.
Look in the shadows of winter, where we find ourselves now, to discover that which brings us life.
More to come…
NOTE: Richardson is an artist, writer, and ordained Methodist minister. She has attracted an international audience “drawn to the spaces of welcome, imagination, and solace that she creates in both word and image.” Candice gives especially high praise to another of Richardson’s books, The Sanctuary of Women, that draws from women’s wisdom through the ages.
*Frank can really turn a phrase!
I also read Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (2016) by Timothy Keller as part of my Advent devotionals this year. Keller is a best-selling author and Presbyterian minister with fans that very much love his work. However, I found his book to come from a very moralistic perspective. Keller spends a great deal of time telling us that we are not people who can pull ourselves together and live a moral and good life…so we need to follow his interpretation of the Gospel. It is very Presbyterian in that sense. I prefer James Alison’s look at the non-moralistic nature of Christianity, myself.