Category Archives: ADVENT Resources and Reflections

Pastoral Prayer at the End of Advent

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Most gracious God,

desire of every living thing,

you have lighted our way in Advent

candle by candle,

dispelling our gloom.

and now four candles shine.

The night is almost over.

The Day is almost here.

But not yet.

Promise by promise

you have cleared our sight

with words from afar,

dreams, signs and wonders,

and now the Word made flesh

Is almost appearing.

But not yet.

Grace by grace

you have kept us awake,

brightening our eyes of faith,

and now we watch only a little more.

Now on tiptoe we see

the one we waited for

is almost here.

But not yet.

At the end of Advent,

in these days of not quite yet,

look with compassion

on the pain of the joyless,

the grief of the childless,

the sorrow of the bereaved:

for not all people enjoy the season,

not every family embraces,

not every womb conceives and carries,

not every day dawns with the presence of those we love,

not every story is full of angels,

not every song is ‘Glory!’

As we tell again the story

of your coming among us,

bind our hearts to the anguish of the poor,

the suffering of the sick,

the misery of the imprisoned,

and keep us alive to the terrors of war,

too easily forgotten, too easily accepted.

Increase the joy of earth,

and help us relish with thankful hearts

every good thing that will be ours at Christmas:

every pleasure and taste,

every sound and sight,

every touch and memory,

so that in the delight of our bodies

and the thoughts of our minds

we will know and love you,

who visits us through every sense and pore.

More than anything, O God,

we ask for Christ –

to meet his love, to know his goodness,

to experience his power, to be attracted to his way.

We ask for Christ—

to make the difference, to anchor our hearts,

to lead the way, to bring us home.

We ask for Christ – for cradle and cross,

for lullaby and lament, for life and death

and life made new in him.

In hope we pray,

the spirit of Christmas leaping within us,

heartened by his almost visitation,

the words he taught us on our lips:

Our Father….

Lectio Divina with Mary in Advent

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 First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC

Lectio Divina

 Advent 2007

The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation……Do not ask “how shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?” Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What Is Lectio Divina?

Lectio divina, or “sacred reading” is an ancient practice that emerged in the early centuries of the Christian church, and was widely used in monastic communities throughout the subsequent centuries. Although they did not use the term, our Puritan forebears also used a method of meditating on scripture and “inwardly digesting” its meaning that is similar to lectio.

Lectio divina invites us to approach the Bible not as an abstruse book to be studied, but as a privileged space in which to meet a living God. The practice of lectio doesn’t ask us to figure out the meaning of a text with our heads; it allows us to be met by its meaning in our hearts. Lectio invites us to know a God who wants to speak to our whole lives through the words of scripture. Through the practice of lectio, the Spirit draws us into the Word, to become absorbed in it, to ponder its intersections with our daily lives, and to be changed by our pondering.

During the season of Advent especially, lectio divina takes its inspiration from Mary, the mother of Jesus. Since the beginning, the Christian tradition has recognized her as the prayerful reader of the Word par excellence. She attended to the Word uttered in the Hebrew scriptures, the Word made flesh in her own body, the Word revealed in the ministry of Jesus, and the Word unfolding in the life of the church. Mary models what it means to be a disciple by her open, active attentiveness to her son, through whom God spoke—and is still speaking—a transforming Word. She who was “overshadowed by the Holy Spirit” at Jesus’ conception, was guided by that same Spirit to ponder the meaning of his life at every turn. This Advent. we are invited to learn from her to do the same.

Four Movements

Lectio divina can be practiced individually or in a group. Our focus in this booklet is on individual practice. It is traditionally comprised of four movements:

1) Lectio – reading God’s Word

2) Meditatio – meditating on the Word

3) Oratio – responding prayerfully to the Word

4) Contemplatio – resting in contemplation of God through the Word.

The movements of lectio divina are not fixed rules, but guidelines that also describe the way that this form of prayer normally develops. Its natural movement is towards increasing simplicity—less and less thinking and talking, and more and more deep listening. Over time, with perseverance, the words of scripture reveal the Word of God to the attentive ears of our heart.

Guidelines for Personal Lectio Divina

These four movements are traditionally practiced like this:

0) Preparation

Preparing for the encounter with the Word

Quiet yourself. Try to be fully present to God, in a spirit of expectancy. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your reading. Don’t rush this preparation.

1) First ReadingLectio

Reading the Word slowly so that it sinks into us

Read a passage of scripture slowly and attentively. As you read, be aware of words or phrases in the text that seem to stay with you. Pay attention to a word or phrase that shimmers, disturbs, lures, or invites you. After a short pause, read the passage a second time. Then allow some silence. In that time, repeat inwardly the word or phrase that drew your attention; take it in, gently recite it to yourself, linger over it, savor and ponder it.

2) Second ReadingMeditatio

Recognizing the places where the Word intersects with our lives

Read the text again. During this reading, be mindful of instances in which the text seems to intersect with your recent experience. Ask, “Does this reading touch my life here and now, today?” “Does the word or phrase that attracted my attention connect with or illumine what is going on with me now?”

Spend 2-3 minutes in silence. Pay calm attention to any images or feelings that arise from pondering where the chosen word or phrase connects with your recent experience. (If some other word or phrase from the passage comes to mind and your heart seems drawn to it, feel free to go with it!) You may not immediately understand connections that emerge between your word (or the passage itself) and your life. They may not seem logical or direct. It doesn’t matter. Accept whatever comes to you, dwell with it, and reflect on it.

3) Third ReadingOratio

Listening for the Word’s invitation

Read the passage slowly once more. Ask yourself, “Do I sense this passage inviting me to do or be something? To take a new step in my discipleship? Am I finding myself in a new place? Or hearing something for the first time? Is there encouragement for me here? A challenge? If so, what is it?” If you don’t feel an invitation, you might wish to ponder, “Am I changed in any way by my prayerful reading of this text?”

Read the passage again. Then try to leave the thinking/reasoning part of you aside for a while, and allow your heart to speak to God. Let your feelings lead your prayer.

4) PrayerContemplatio

Resting in the Word’s presence

In the silence of prayer, calm down your own words and thoughts, and simply rest in the Word of God. Let God take the lead. Listen at the deepest level of your being for God to address you. The “voice” you hear may simply be a deep silence, or perhaps an echo of the word that spoke to you in the text, or some other “voice.” Conclude by praying the Lord’s Prayer, slowly and with attention to each petition. Thank God for this time of prayer, and go your way!

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Texts for Advent Lectio Divina

Here are some suggested texts for your pondering during the season of Advent. In some weeks only one text is suggested; in others, more than one. In any given week, you should feel free to meditate on all the texts. just one of them, on a few lines from one of them, or even different texts altogether! The important thing is to practice prayerful reading, and let a word of scripture burrow deep within you in this sacred time.

Week One

The Word in the Book

Christian tradition often depicts Mary as a faithful reader of the Hebrew scriptures. It even goes so far as to imagine that the young Mary was reading—pondering God’s promise of a savior in the pages of scripture—at the very moment that the angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce that she would be the mother of God’s anointed one. This idea has become a familiar motif in Christian art over the centuries.

Nowhere does the New Testament depict Mary actually reading, but it is not far-fetched to think that, like many fervent Jews in 1st century Palestine, she longed for the appearance of an anointed one who would establish justice and peace on earth. It is not far-fetched to imagine that she was faithfully attentive to God’s Word of promise, always pondering what it might mean for her people and for her own life too.

In this first week of Advent, we ponder the familiar text of the angel’s annunciation to Mary. We see Mary, steeped in the Word and faithfully to the covenant of people, at the very moment that the promise is fulfilled. How might this text intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Week Two

The Word in the Body

One of the central affirmations of Christianity is that although God speaks to us in many different ways, God speaks to us in a unique way in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. In him, God’s Word dwells fully. This is what Christians call the Incarnation—the Word becomes flesh, taking on a fully human life. The Word lived among us, sharing our lot and revealing in a new way God’s will for our world.

Tradition teaches that Mary became pregnant with this Word. She carried the Word in her body. It is Jesus, her son. As the Word grew within her, her joy increased. Pondering the presence of the Holy in her very flesh caused her to burst into song, glorifying God for the salvation that was to come into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit and her own “yes” to God’s life-changing invitation to bear the Word.

In the second week, we are invited to reflect on a pregnant Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant and full of hope. We also listen to Mary’s song of joyful praise, the “Magnificat.” How might these texts intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Luke 1:26-45

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

 Luke 1: 45-56

45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

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Week Three

The Word in Jesus of Nazareth

Luke’s gospel speaks of shepherds following a star to the stable in Bethlehem. When these poor, marginalized laborers reach the crib of Jesus—the one who “lay aside the glory that was his” to spend his life as a companion of the poor—they bend their knees, marveling at the sight of him and of his mother. They praise God for keeping the age-old promise to send the prince of peace. Mary marvels in turn, and, the gospel says, “she treasured their words in her heart.”

Later, when Jesus is a teenager and astonishes the teachers with his wisdom, Mary will have cause to ponder the mystery of his person again. And the mystery deepens as Jesus begins his teaching ministry in Gallilee. At the foot of the Cross, Mary’s contemplation of the Word in her son reaches new depths of mysterious and agonizing awe.

In the third week, we ponder with Mary the Word in action in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, a Word that speaks of radical faithfulness to the ultimate and absolute claim of God upon his life. How might these texts intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Luke 2:15-19

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:41-52

\41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Luke 11:27-28; Luke 8:18-21

11:27While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” 28But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

8:18Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” 19Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” 21But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.

John 19:25b-27

25And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

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Week Four

 The Word in the Church

The Acts of the Apostles is a chronicle of the life of the early Christian church as it takes root and grows in the Mediterranean world after the resurrection of Jesus. Although the gospels say little about Mary overall, she is expressly mentioned as being at the heart of the early church with the other disciples in the upper room, after Jesus’ farewell on the Mount of Olives. There, with Jesus’ inner circle, she waited and prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Together they devoted themselves to pondering, to fellowship, and to breaking and sharing the bread of the Eucharist—the bread her son called “his body.”

Subsequent tradition would call her “the mother of the church,” which is (as St Paul would say) Christ’s body. But the most important thing about Mary is that she was the first disciple, a faithful follower all her days, and spent her remaining years—or so we imagine—the same way she lived her early life, turning over in her heart the meaning of God’s Word of promise. This is what the church is all about—a communion of disciples pondering God’s Word of promise and embodying it in our daily lives through love and service, in imitation of Jesus, and with boundless hope.

In the fourth week, we contemplate Mary at the center of the community, modeling hope, breaking bread, and still following her son through a faithful life in the church. How might these texts intersect with your own life and faith this Advent?

Acts 1:12-14

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Acts 2:43-47

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


Images:

Annunciation, John Collier

Annunciation, Edward Frampton

Annunciation, Jean Hey

Annunciation, Antonello da Messina

 

 

 

In Common

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“O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind…” —O Come, O Come Emmanuel

On a visit to South India, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked to bless the Hindu kitchen staff of a big hotel. The occasion was the annual mixing of the batter for their famous Christmas cake. So, as instructed, the Archbishop poured honey into an enormous trough of fruit, said prayers, shook hands, and walked out into the searing heat, with “Joy to the World” blaring over the loudspeakers.

Christmas, it turns out, is one of the West’s greatest exports. The story is known and loved even in places where other faiths predominate–Shanghai, Mumbai, Dar-es-Salaam.

And why not? It features a clutching newborn child, and not many people on earth can resist offering a pinky to the clutch of an infant.

It may be the thing we long for most—to let go of our aggression and fear and whatever else there is in us that keeps us tied to violence, and bend over a child in shared wonder and gratitude. Perhaps this common longing is what the old hymn means by ‘the desire of nations.’

You don’t have to be a Christian to be deeply gladdened by a story of open, defenseless love. Even when that story comes draped in gaudy tinsel and bows, it touches something basic, something commonly human.

And that should make us think twice, even in a season of fear and woe, about ever giving up on the heart’s capacity for goodness and faith, however deeply buried it may seem.

Prayer

“O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind. Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our Prince of Peace.”

 

Divinized

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“The One who makes rich is made poor, taking on the poverty of flesh, that I may gain the riches of divinity. The One who is full is made empty, devoid a while of glory, that I may share that glory fully. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me?”—St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-391)

It’s an ancient theological question: Why did God become one of us?

Some Christians believe it was to fix a big problem—to pay the unpayable debt incurred by Adam’s sin. When he grows up, Jesus will bridge with his broken body the unbridgeable chasm our disobedience opened between us and God.

And if that’s what you believe about God’s purpose, you stand in a venerable stream of Christian tradition, and I won’t say you’re wrong.

I will say it’s not the only way to imagine why God took a body. There are other venerable traditions, and one of them says the Savior came to divinize us, to give us God’s own glory.

God emptied out to take humanity in. God stooped down to raise us up. God accepted limits to dissolve the limits that made it seem, tragically, as if God and humans are opposites. The mystery—the wonder—of the Incarnation is that we’re not.

In this way of imagining, what we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us but someone to reveal us to ourselves. The gift on the horizon is not a grim course correction but a mirror, a gaze, a joyous shock of mutual recognition—there, the eternal resemblance, the beauty, the dignity, the shining, shining love.

Prayer

O to be the objects of so great an Affection! O this wealth of goodness! O this mystery that surrounds us!

 

Third Advent Sing! [Isaiah 35:1-10]

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A young woman had just become the associate pastor of a big suburban church—her first job in ministry—and was asked to give a children’s sermon during the season of Advent. She’d had a hard, busy week and arrived at that Sunday frazzled and unprepared. And so, as worship began, she decided that she would just gather up all the kids in the chancel and conduct an “ask the minister anything you want” children’s time. She figured that she could handle whatever the munchkins might throw at her—I mean, how hard could the questions be?

Now, to conduct an “ask the minister anything you want” session is an act of hubris under any circumstances, but it’s nothing less than a death wish to do it with children, especially when you have made already the mistake of underestimating them. But she had no other tricks up her sleeve that day, and so she went ahead.

So there they were, all the kids gathered around the minister, pondering things they wanted to ask her. Right away, up went a hand and out came a question. “Why,” the little one asked, “is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink?”

The associate minister knew a lot about many things from her seminary training—ecclesiology, scripture, soteriology, and why bad things happen to good people—but she had slept through the class on pink Advent candles. Wait, was there a class on pink Advent candles? She had no idea. So she made another big mistake, and turned the question back to the little questioner.

“What a great question, Jimmy!” she enthused. “So, tell us, why do you think there is one pink candle?”

“Ummm…. because you ran out of purple?”

Jimmy’s reply unleashed a flurry of further fantastical kiddie speculation that, while hilarious, was not exactly on point. Finally, a grown-up sitting with the kids came to everybody’s rescue. “The pink candle stands for joy,” he said.

Ah, that made some sense. “Right!” said the associate minister, as if she’d known it all along. “It stands for joy!” she crowed to the assembly, sending the children back to their pews. And everybody seemed relieved, if not downright joyful, to get that truly weird moment over with.

“It stands for joy.” Well, yes, in fact it does.

Advent is a short season. It doesn’t require as much spiritual stamina as does its more ferocious sibling, Lent. Nonetheless, if you enroll in Advent’s exacting school of bodily yearning; if you adopt its characteristic practice of pondering the end of all things, including your own end, even as you await a wonderful birth; if you accept its sobering climate, its invitation to change your mind now and turn your life around; if you hear its insistence that you watch tirelessly and wait perseveringly for the promised dawn to appear, then right about now, in this third week, you could probably use a little pink. You might really welcome an injection of color into the monochrome wildernesses of this season. You could be ready for a giddy moment of release in the discipline that insists, against the culture and our own inclinations, that we delay our gratification, order and purify our desires until the promised dawn appears.

And so the color of the third candle is pink, and the color of the scripture reading is too. It’s a burst of rosy exuberance from the prophet Isaiah who foresees the day when the long-exiled people will come home to Zion at last in a great pilgrimage procession on a broad highway through a well-watered desert in impossible bloom.

In this luscious vision, God’s greening of the desert, the healing of the natural world, is matched by God’s greening of all things human—the healing and restoration of infirm and outcast people, the ransom and exaltation of the poor and forgotten. Thus, as one preacher put it, God “embroiders a tapestry of salvation with threads from the inorganic, plant, animal, and human worlds,” a peace that is ecological, personal, and communal.

And the sign and proof of God’s mercy in healing all creation is an outpouring of music. At the heart of the new creation is the song. The desert flowers are singing, people who all their lives have not been physically able to utter a word are singing, the company of ransomed captives is singing, the cosmos itself is singing.

Everything is aflush with hope, pink and rosy and bright. And we are meant to feel the mounting excitement of something new just around the corner, something promised, something coming, something good.

For us who call ourselves Christians, that something good is God-with-us, Jesus, born of Mary, the Rose of Sharon, as the medieval theologians would say. He comes to us in a feeding trough surrounded by peaceable animals. The infirm and outcast come to him. The poor adore him. He is a well of living water in the human desert. He turns that water into wine of endless supply. He multiplies loaves for us in the wilderness, more than we need. He himself is the highway on which we travel back home together rejoicing, after a long sad exile.

Jesus is for us the graceful well-being promised from of old, the healing that restores nature and human nature in the harmonious wholeness of God’s original intent. And in his presence, as sign and proof that this is the handiwork of the compassionate God, there is singing.

“Magnificat anima mea,” sings the pregnant Mary as she greets her cousin, Elizabeth. My soul magnifies the Lord who pulls tyrants from their thrones.

“Gloria in excelsis Deo!” sing the angels to announce his birth. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to all people on earth!

And the old man Simeon sings at the sight of the baby in the temple, “My eyes behold your promise, Lord; it is fulfilled! Now I can die in peace!”

In the presence of the Holy One, everyone sings. Everything makes music. And we do too. Singing is the way we feel a promised world that we can only imagine. It’s our way of knowing the truth that otherwise we only weakly grasp. When we sing we experience the whole, healed life we were meant for. When we sing, we are, at least for the length of the song, exactly who we were created to be. Our song is sign and proof of God’s delight in us, God’s re-creative power at work among us, God’s inexpressible nearness to us.

Our singing is a practice and it is a gift. It has many names – grace, vision, life-line, surrender, healing, re-creation. It is also (to borrow a line from Robert Frost) “a momentary stay against confusion.” For when we gather in the pink beauty of Advent, we don’t come alone. Along with us come also the power struggles of spouses, the resentments of children, the toxic waste of landfills, the gunfire of our streets, the injustice of our economic system, and the quarrelsome niceties of our theologies. When we gather here in the rosy glow of Isaiah’s vision of a redeemed cosmos, the unredeemed world is always with us. And in these circumstances, and because of all the odds arrayed against Advent’s beauty and promise, we have no choice but to sing. No other strength and power but the unending song of God.

As people of God’s song we are compelled to believe that sooner or later, our relentless singing will so bewilder the enemies of love that they will have no choice but to give up and turn themselves in. They will bow to the Mystery that is even now eroding the foundations of hate. Sooner or later, a crack of light will appear under the locked door of life, and the door will fly open. Sooner or later, the song will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will come true.

When we sing we feel the world we can only imagine. Sing, then, on this Sunday of joy, as if by singing high walls will fall, locked chains will snap. Sing as if you believe that at the sound of our songs, one more generous heart will embrace a stranger. Sing as if you believe that by singing, one day the only sound in the whole creation will be a melody of delight – God’s delight in us, and ours in God.

So sing, heavenly bodies in your orbits, stars in your exploding light. Choirs of angels, sing. Sing, Church, a song of healing, a song of resistance, a song of peace. Sing, all the earth—sing for your life! Our God is near!

 

Virgin Mary

Young Mary is flummoxed by Gabriel’s announcement that she will have a son without human agency. She wonders aloud how it could happen, this unheard-of virginal conception.

It’s an obvious and simple question, and it gets a simple answer; but for centuries after this story saw the light of day, theologians have been falling all over themselves in prurient speculation about Mary’s physical virginity, not content to leave the simple answer alone.

But Mary was content with it. Somehow, Gabriel assures her, the Holy Spirit will fix it all up and it will happen. For with God everything is possible.

And we know it’s true.

We know if we have ever been or are right now in the process of being liberated from some captivity, great or small.

If we have ever been or are right now being born into something we have longed for and needed all our lives.

If we have ever felt or find ourselves right now feeling Jesus’ freshness in our weariness, his encouragement in our sorrow, his challenge in our self-involved boredom, his gentleness in our hard reality, his care in our confusion.

If we are looking today at another human being with even a smidgeon more openness and love than ever before, and are able to call them “kin.” If we are looking today at another human being and are able to say to them with even a smidgeon more compassion and solidarity than ever before, “You are my own.”

If one of these things, or any other newfound freedom of mind, soul or body has ever been our deep experience, then we know that what the gospel says about the virgin and the fruit of her womb is true.

For such freedom, such progress, such love, such originality and freshness, such an unheard-of thing did not come from us. We are not the agents of our own new births. Such salvation has only God as its progenitor.

We are all virginally conceived of the Holy Spirit and born into true human life. Our role in the mystery of life is not to make ourselves, but to become God’s Marys, to be welcoming of grace like she was, to say yes to our calling as she did, to become servants of the Most High and disciples of her Son as she became, and respond to the message of angels that visit us night and day.

Image:  Joyful Mystery #1, Annunciation, by Jim Janknegt

Take 2: A Good Word for the World in Advent

Last Advent I posted a Facebook Note called “A Good Word for the World in Advent.” It got a lot of shares. But it did not, alas, change the world, or the church. Oh well.

In that piece, I argued that the church does itself no good when it rails against the world in this season, condemning and shaming ordinary people for shopping too much and failing to slow down long enough to recall ‘the reason for the season.’

To be sure, this posture vis-à-vis the world at Christmas aims to admonish and correct serious sins—consumerism and materialism, for example—but these are no more sins at Christmas than at any other time of the year. And yet we grow especially shrill about them at Christmas, which is supremely ironic, given how frantic the church itself usually is at this season, and how zeroed in on the mystery of the Incarnation the church claims to be during these weeks.

After all, I argued, the world the Babe is born into, the world God loves so much that God enters it in the flesh is not some hushed austere world where nobody gets and spends and everyone has time for contemplating the ‘real meaning’ of things. It is this world, our world, the one we condemn, but which God loves ‘so much…” that God gave us a Son, scripture says, not to condemn, but to save.  A posture of judgment and a stance over against the world hardly evokes the infinite Compassion that takes on our materiality as his own in this season.

Besides, the consumerist and stress-dealing sins we decry in the run-up to Christmas are sins in which all of us are complicit, not just those frantic folks out there beating each other up in the XBOX aisle on Black Friday. There is much hypocrisy in the frantic busy church of this season, but that is not a new story either.

This is not to say that the church does not have a different picture of the way the world could be to show to people, or that we have no Good News for the harried and consumerist world of acquisition and greed—we do.  Nor does it mean that we ought not attack the systems and arrangements by which an unfettered profit motive creates and sustains real spiritual and material damage. Nor does it mean that we have no right to speak a word of admonishment about the way things are now.

My point is only that if and when we admonish, it should be from a posture of humility, with previous self-examination, so that we are the ones we are admonishing every bit as much as “them” out there. And it must be framed in a rhetoric of immense empathy and compassion for all the human wounds on full display in this season, the waywardness of the sheep, if you will, for whose healing the church exists, and for whom there can be no merciless judgment, only a merciful setting out to find and bring back home.

If you want to read that piece, you can find it on this blog. Look for it in the Advent resources category. Today I want to add another question to the questions I pose there.

Does the shrill tone we tend to take in this season betray an unconscious sense of entitlement? When we complain that consumerism has hijacked Christmas, for example, are we claiming that Christmas is or ought to be untouchable, just as Sunday morning worship should be untouchable, exempt from incursions from soccer leagues?

In other words, does the church think it has some sort of inherent right to be heard and heeded out there, that its ‘stuff’ should be given pride of place and cultural privilege? Are we just all bummed out because nobody else seems to think so and is paying us no mind, going on with business as usual, while we fulminate over here in the corner, year after year?

Are we—yes, even us progressives—still operating out of a ‘Christendom’ mentality in which we expect the culture to play by our rules, and heel when we give the command?

Those days are long gone, of course; so maybe instead of railing against the world at Christmas, the church would be better off in Advent imitating its savior—and that means not remaining aloof or setting ourselves against the world, but rather entering it, entering it more fully and more open-heartedly and more compassionately than ever; and there, among the tinsel and the eggnog, the XBOXES and the maxed out credit cards, feel in our own body the terrible suffering of the captive consumer and their aching desire for lasting gifts

Maybe we’d be better off not insisting on our rights, but opening ourselves instead to experiencing the Lord’s humiliation—the experience of being small and ignored and impotent, having relinquished all status and privilege, and having ‘laid aside the glory that was his.’ Maybe this is the season for laying aside the glory that was ours.

If we must stand against the world this season, why not stand against that world in which the church was a really big deal for all the wrong reasons? Why not choose instead to be compassionate companions of the beleaguered materialist consumer in the real world where such companionship with the suffering always brings more salvation than all the shrill cries of “Bad! Bad! Wrong! Wrong!” ever could.