Say Yes: A Homily for Advent 4

The Visitation, German c. 1444.

In calling me, the call does not leave me intact; it surges only by opening a space in me to be heard, and therefore by shattering something of what I was before I felt myself to be called.

— Jean-Louis Chrétien

In Mahler’s Third Symphony, the first movement is an eruption of massive orchestral sounds: horns, drums, fanfares and marches, a shaking of the foundations to make way for a new world to appear. And for the next four movements, the music rarely takes a breath. The adagio, the slow, contemplative movement which usually comes in the middle of a symphony, is delayed until the very end. And what an ending it is—23 minutes long!—taking us with unhurried solemnity ever deeper into the mystery of the world. Mahler called it “the higher form in which everything is resolved into quiet being. I could almost call the Third’s finale ‘What God tells me,’” he added, “in the sense that God can only be understood as love.” [i]

Advent is like that symphony, it seems to me. Over the first three Sundays, the prophets roar, the heavens shake, the voices cry. Repent! Make way! Stay awake! Cast away the works of darkness! Put on the armor of light! But on the Fourth Sunday, it’s suddenly quiet. No more cosmic thunder. No more urgent warnings. The Baptist’s big crowds have drifted on home. Advent’s adagio finale is a miniature: two pregnant women in a humble courtyard, having an intimate conversation. 

But what a conversation it is! “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” says Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” replies her cousin Mary. Their ecstatic words have been on our lips in worship ever since.[ii]

The cousins had a lot to process. One was carrying the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. The other was carrying the founder and pioneer of a transformed humanity. They held creation’s future within them, ever since they had each said “Yes” to a story that was no longer their own. They now belonged to God, come what may. I imagine they both did a lot of laughing and crying that day.

The Rev. Mark Harris, a dear friend I first met in seminary a half-century ago, began last year’s challenging Advent by writing a poem about Mary’s consent. It’s called “Implications of Yes.”

The neighbors talked about it for a while,
How the young girl who was beginning to show 
Came back from meeting her cousin
And seemed kind of quiet,

How she was seen leaving her house 
Early one morning with a small sapling 
Bundled in rough cloth in one hand, 
And a shovel in the other.

Later she was seen coming back,
No sapling, the shovel over her shoulder, 
Her hands and dress smeared with dirt, 
Her eyes red and swollen.

Later, sitting with the others, she spoke 
Of her longing for a lost simplicity
And her preparations for realities 
that follow from her quiet Yes .

Years from now, she said, 
There will be need for this tree grown,
Just as there is need now 
for this Child that grows in me. 

The tree will bear the body of the Man, 
As I bear the Child.
We will each be ready in our turn
To do as the Holy One requires.

We will, with the Holy One we bear, 
Be broken by the bearing, 
And will give our lives
For the healing of the nations. [iii]

The poet gives us a stunning image here. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, plants the tree that will become his cross! Both mother and tree will, like Jesus, offer all that they have and all that they are for the healing of the nations, the repair of the world. That’s how the story goes in a fallen, broken world, and if you say ”Yes” to this story, it will cost no less than everything. 

When Mary said “Yes” to the angel of the Annunciation, it was neither the first nor the last time she would do so. Her whole life up to that point had been a series of consents that would prepare her to receive the Holy One into herself. And in the years that followed, she never renounced her acceptance of the story that would one day take her weeping to the foot of the cross. It is no light thing to say Yes to such a story.

We will each be ready in our turn
To do as the Holy One requires.

Mary was ready in her turn. But now it’s our turn. 

The Incarnation of the Divine Word was a singular event. Only Jesus could be who he was and do what he did as the unique conjunction of human and divine—God in the flesh. But in another sense, the Incarnation is a continuing event to the degree that we ourselves become open and receptive to the divine that wants to be born in us.

The Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) put it this way: The purpose of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In other words, our human destiny is to be filled with Divinity, to dwell in God and let God dwell in us. What did we ask in today’s collect-prayer? May our own souls and bodies become “a mansion prepared for Godself.”[iv] We weren’t kidding around. It’s our most serious Advent prayer, committing ourselves to becoming God-bearers. 

The first Christians made some strikingly bold claims for humanity’s potential for “divinization” (becoming like God). The Second Letter of Peter (1:4) says: “God has given you such precious and majestic promises, that you may become partakers of the divine nature.” The First Letter of John (3:2) says, “We know that when God appears, we shall be like God, because we shall see God as God is.” And St. Paul, in Second Corinthians 3:18, insists that “all of us, with faces unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” 

The two most famous summations of divinization as corollary to incarnation were made by Irenaeus in the second century and Athanasius in the fourth. “In God’s immense love,” said Irenaeus, “God became what we are, that he might make us what he is.” Athanasius was even more explicit: “The Divine Word became human that humans might become God.”

Now many have argued against this whole idea of divinization. There’s too great a gulf between Creator and creature, some say. Who can hope to cross that infinite abyss? Others say that humanity is simply not up to it. Just look at world history over the past century, or the last few years in America. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021, for example, did anyone see Christ’s glory being reflected from those tormented faces at our nation’s Capitol? [v]

But if we believe that the Divine Word was truly made flesh, and that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, then we must acknowledge the existence of an innate human capacity to receive and embody God. Absent that capacity, Mary could never have conceived our Lord and Savior. There is an integral part of our human makeup which is designed to answer when God calls. In other words, our humanity always contains a mansion prepared for Godself. That receptive capacity to say Yes to God may be buried beneath multiple layers of ego and sin, but it cannot be destroyed. It’s a feature, not a bug.

One of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the last century, Sergius Bulgakov, insisted on the indispensable role of humanity in the Incarnation: 

Christ did not bring His human nature down from heaven, and He did not create it anew from the earth; rather, He took it from “the most pure flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary”… [T]he Incarnation of Christ is realized not in one Person but in two: in Christ and in the Virgin Mary. The icon of the Mother of God with Infant is therefore the true icon of the Incarnation.[vi]

To become fully human, the only-begotten of God did not destroy human nature, making it something it was not. Rather, Christ fulfilled human nature, manifesting our human potential to dance with God. But we need help to realize our full humanity. It’s not just that our wills are impaired by sin. The fact is that we are not made to function as autonomous beings at all. We are choral beings at heart. We need the full choir, the whole company of heaven and earth, in order to be our truest selves and exist not in isolation but in holy communion.  

So let us admit that Mary was capable of divinization. She could contain and give birth to the holy in our midst. But what about the rest of us? Are we capable of embodying divinity? Many Christians have said yes, absolutely! The great hymn writer Charles Wesley put it this way:

Heavenly Adam, life divine, 
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.[vii]

That’s a high bar for sure. But it happens. The saints prove that every day. And we ourselves are here because we are engaged in the same transformational project.

Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

Less me, more God.

Our parish hosted a film series this Advent, and last week’s feature, Of Gods and Men (2010), told the true story of French Trappist monks who served an impoverished Muslim village in Algeria. Their monastery, Our Lady of Atlas, had been there since 1938, but in the decades after the end of French colonial rule in 1962, their community was threatened by civil unrest and a lingering suspicion of Europeans. In the 1990s, returning to France was clearly the safest choice, but the village leaders begged them to stay. They depended on the monks, not only for medical care, but for their stabilizing and loving presence.

On Christmas Eve, 1993, terrorists broke into the monastery and held the monks at gunpoint, making it clear that they were now in mortal danger. The terrorists eventually departed without incident (even apologizing for disturbing the holy feast of Jesus’ birth), and the monks celebrated Midnight Mass with special intensity. But the threat remained.

Two years later (March 1996), that Christmas Eve of both fear and deliverance was still reverberating in their hearts. Dom Christian, the prior, told the brothers in a Lenten reflection: 

… through that experience we felt invited to be born again. The life of a man goes forth from birth to birth … In our life there is always a child to be born; the child of God who each of us is … We have to be witnesses of the Emmanuel, that is, of “God with us.” There is a presence of “God among us” which we ourselves must assume.[viii]

A few weeks after Dom Christian wrote these lines about giving birth to God, the monks were taken hostage just before Holy Week. They would be martyred during Eastertide. If they had fled the country when they had the chance, they could have preserved their lives. But the brothers would not abandon the people they served. And their writings and their actions made it clear that they had already surrendered their lives long before, in both their baptismal vows and their monastic vows. They were people who knew what it meant to say yes when Jesus calls, come what may. 

Of Gods and Men (2010). The monks say yes to remaining in harm’s way.

If any of you still have doubts about the human capacity to embody divinity, listen to what Dom Christian wrote after that pivotal Christmas Eve, imagining what he would say to his future killer at the hour of his death: 

And also you, my friend of the last moment,
who will not have known what you are doing:
Yes, I want this thank you and this “a-dieu
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves 
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. 
Amen! In h’allah! [ix]

Who could write such a thing had God not filled him to the brim! Another monk, Fr. Christopher, wrote in his journal during that same Christmastide: “We are in a state of epiclesis.”[x] Epiclesis is a Greek term denoting the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic prayer, asking for the sanctification of our lives as well as the holy gifts on the altar. 

We are all in a state of epiclesis—the acquisition of Spirit. And indeed, it is God’s desire to give us more spirit, more grace, more love, more humanity and more divinity. All we need to do is say Yes



[i] Gustav Mahler, letter to Bruno Walter in 1896, the year he composed the Third Symphony.

[ii] Elizabeth’s words are part of the “Hail Mary” prayer used in the Rosary; Mary’s Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) is one of the oldest Christian hymns, and draws upon the Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and other Old Testament texts. This scene of the two cousins only appears in Luke 1:39-55.

[iii] Mark Harris is an Episcopal priest, poet and artist living in Lewes, Delaware. The poem, written December 1, 2020, is used by permission. 

[iv] The Collect for Advent 4 in the Book of Common Prayer reads: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[v] January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world. It is a bitter irony that that date has now been corrupted by the violence, hate and delusion of the insurrection. A similar irony taints the Feast of the Transfiguration, when the brilliant light of Christ’s divinity must share August 6 with the incinerating explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. 

[vi] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 200, 202.

[vii] Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Since the Son Hath Made Me Free.

[viii] Dom Christian de Chergé, Reflections for Lent (March 8, 1996), in Bernardo Olivera, How Far to Follow: The Martyrs of Atlas (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1997), 103, 99. 

[ix] Testament of Dom Christian, dated Dec. 1, 1993 & Jan. 1, 1994, opened, after his death, on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996, in Olivera, 127.

[x] Fr. Christopher Lebreton (January, 1994), in Olivera 111.

Advent Lessons and Carols

Our parish service of Advent Lessons and Carols is virtual this year, using music recorded in 2019, and readers recorded in 2020. I added visuals inspired by the texts. The choir of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington, is under the direction of Paul Roy, who also plays the organ. Priscilla Jones plays cello, and Rick Baty is on trumpet. The Rev. Karen Haig, rector of St. Barnabas, is the Officiant.

I share it here with my wish that your own Advent, dear reader, may be a season of hope and peace as the friends of God watch for the dawn.

The service music and notes on the images:

Veni Emmanuel (arr. Raymond H. Haan): The empty church at nightfall, like all of us scattered in our pandemic isolation, longs for the dawning of the day when God’s friends will once more fill this sacred space with thanks and praise.

Savior of the nations, come (Martin Luther’s variation on Ambrose of Milan, translated by William M. Reynolds and James Waring McCrady, with a powerful 16th century tune): Text and images celebrate the “wondrous birth.”

Adam lay ybounden (15th century text, setting by Boris Ord, 1897-1961): Had there been no apple and no Fall, the carol says, there would be no Queen of heaven and no Incarnate Word (some theologians dispute this—God wants to be with us under any circumstances—but the “felix culpa” is here charmingly argued). The last image here contrasts Eve picking an apple with Mary picking the sacramental Host to feed the people.

There is no rose of such virtue (15th century text, setting by Stephen Carraciolo): This lovely text compares Mary to a rose, and so do the images.

When the King shall come again (text by Christopher Idle, b. 1938): The images illustrate the hymn’s vision of a redeemed Creation: earth’s loveliness restored …rivers spring up … ransomed people march on God’s highway toward “the Lord with glory crowned.”

See, amid the winter’s snow (text by Edward Caswall, 1858; tune by John Goss, 1800-1880)): The text hails “redemption’s happy dawn” and gives us the key Nativity images, but the first line dictated the imagery, which I shot at home in winters past. The relaxing footage induces a contemplative mind receptive to the Mystery.

People, look east (words & music by Eleanor Farjeon, 1881-1965; arr. James E. Clemens): This lively carol prompts a variety of images— looking east at dawn (Mt. Rainier, Seattle from a ferry), home and hospitality (St. Barnabas in the snow), birds (pine siskins, goldfinches), stars, and angels (from Annunciation paintings). The final line, “Love, the Lord, is on the way,” inspired the linking of Mary’s pregnancy to the eucharist Host being adored by the angelic host.

Magnificat (setting by Thomas Attwood Walmisley): Mary’s great hymn of reversal is accompanied by diverse images of the Mother of God.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending: Charles Wesley’s great hymn of the Second Coming, with its stirring tune by Augustine Arne (1710-1788), calls for clouds and—unusual for the season—Passion imagery.

Sleepers, wake! A voice astounds us (arr. J.S. Bach): The words for this great Advent hymn call us to watch for the imminent dawn of salvation. Thus the images of the nocturnal moon (light in the darkness) conclude with sunrise light. The long night is over at last.

The Advent Collection (updated)

I’ve blogged about Advent—my favorite season—many times on “The Religious Imagineer” website. Click here for the updated list and links for all 15 Advent posts (2014-2020), covering theology, prayer practices, and innovative worship. I hope these words may be useful for your own Advent journey.

Coming next week: Praying the Hours (6): Vespers and Compline

“Hopes that pointed to the clouds” — A Sermon for Advent 1

Dawn at the church in Rabanal on the Camino de Santiago (May 2, 2014).

This is a sermon I preached for the First Sunday of Advent, 2020, in the streamed liturgy at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Below the video recording you will find the text with footnotes. Two corrections to the recording: Wordsworth’s account of crossing the Alps is in Book VI of The Prelude, and his celebrated line is: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” That’s exactly how I felt when I took the top photograph on my pilgrimage walk to Santiago, so I doubly regret the error in the recording!

The liturgical year is like a great story with many chapters, and every Advent we go back to the beginning and tell it all over again. But it’s an unusual story. It doesn’t begin with “Once upon a time …” No, it begins with “The End.” Whether the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, we always get the apocalyptic Jesus announcing the end of the world. The sun and moon will go dark, the stars will fall from the sky, reality itself will tremble and shake. 

It’s the ultimate disaster movie, and we usually absorb it as such. The apocalyptic images of destruction and chaos engage our fears while they’re up on the screen (or on the lips of the gospel reader), but when the lights come up and we head for the exit, we expect to find the same old safe and reliable world waiting for us outside the theater or the church. But in 2020, not so much!

The ending of worlds is far too real this year. COVID-19 has made us acutely conscious of our own impermanence, not only as individuals but as a species. Millions have seen their jobs disappear, education is in crisis, social gatherings are nearly extinct, and so many ordinary things, from restaurants to haircuts, not to mention liturgical assemblies, have vanished from daily experience. We’ve been shocked this year to discover how easily the stability of our democratic institutions can be assaulted and eroded, and we’ve been disheartened and unsettled by the fragility of our social bonds in the face of so much hatred, bigotry, demagoguery and violence. Truth itself has become an endangered species. And if all that isn’t enough, the climate apocalypse is well underway. 

“Signs of ending all around us,” says one of our Advent hymns. Then it wonders:

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?
Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate?[i]

How will the world end? Let me count the ways, says the apocalyptic Jesus. But Jesus isn’t trying to depress us. Jesus doesn’t want to paralyze us with despair. But he does want us to be clear about where our treasure is, where our hope lies. Put your faith in the things that endure, he says. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[ii]

I think what he’s getting at here is that our idolatries, our invented securities, will come to nothing in the long run. Only God endures. Only God’s Kingdom—the world of God—is built to last. So learn how to discern what lasts and what doesn’t, and how to remain faithful to the vision without getting discouraged by the obstacles and failures along the way.

A common misconception about the apocalypse is that it only comes once, at the end of history, when the broken will be made whole, all discords harmonized, all divisions reconciled. Christian faith indeed affirms that great vision of a perfected humanity and a restored creation. But our faith also calls us to make that future present wherever and whenever we can, and to notice how it’s already happening around us. At the same time, we need to recognize the ambiguities of historical existence. God and not-God are like the wheat and the weeds—hard to tell apart until the final harvest. Stay awake, Jesus says. Pay attention. Sometimes the Kingdom is where you least expect it. Sometimes it doesn’t look like anything you expected. And often it will come and go in the blink of an eye. Keep your eyes open!

Why must there be apocalypse? Why must so many things come to an end? In order for God’s future to take place now, some of what is present needs to get out of the way to make room for the new thing God wants to happen. That’s why we should speak about the end of the world not as a single, far-off event, but as the ending of worlds plural: the ending of all those things which need to pass away so we can get right with God. 

An economy where millions lose their jobs and millions go hungry while the assets of 600 billionaires increase by 1 trillion dollars during the pandemic—that’s got to go. The killing of people because they’re black—that’s got to go. The destruction of nature by greed and stupidity—that’s got to go. You get the idea. God wants a better world, and God asks us not only to pray for that world but to work for it, and, by God’s grace, to embody it and manifest it whenever and however we can. 

But for reasons we are not given to understand as finite beings, the inbreaking of the Kingdom isn’t a story of steady and relentless progress. We are indeed visionary creatures, full of desire for better selves and better worlds, but we are also finite and fallible, complicated mixtures of mud and spirit. We have our limits. We don’t always know the right thing, or when we think we know, we don’t do it, or can’t do it. Or by the time we do, maybe it’s no longer the right thing. 

Good motives tend to produce mixed outcomes. And as for bad things, Scripture tells us that a creative God can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Historical existence is complicated. It’s messy. A lot of the time we’re just guessing. We have to learn not to fall in love with outcomes, or get too attached to our ideas of the best future. Our God is a God of surprises, and most of our maps to the Promised Land turn out to be illusions, or at least out of date. 

In the late 18th century, the French Revolution stirred the imagination of Europe with a sense of immense possibility. Looking back on 1789 twenty-five years later, French observer Thomas Noon Talfourd described the incredible excitement in the air:

“Every faculty of the mind was awakened,” he said, “every feeling raised to an intenseness of interest, every principle and passion called into superhuman exertions. At one moment, all was hope and joy and rapture; the corruption and iniquity of ages seemed to vanish like a dream; the unclouded heavens seemed once more to ring with the exulting chorus of peace on earth and good-will to men … The most brilliant hopes were cherished … and fresh prospects were daily opening which … filled us with painful delight and with giddy rapture.”[iii]

G.W.F. Hegel, the great German idealist, was 19 years old when that revolution happened. “It was a glorious dawn,” he recalled later. “All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of the epoch. A sublime emotion ruled that age, and enthusiasm of the spirit thrilled through the world, as though the time were now come of the actual reconciliation of God with the world.”[iv]

When the English poet William Wordsworth was a young man, he went to France to begin a walking tour in the summer of 1790, when revolutionary spirits were still high. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he wrote, “France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again.”[v]

Those among us who came of age in the 1960s may remember the same exhilaration of being young and idealistic in a time of great upheaval and daring dreams. We had our “brilliant hopes” and “sublime emotion,” our visions of a new world emerging from the ruins of the old. 

But we would soon discover that a reborn humanity, reconciled to the purposes of God, was not so easily achieved. So too did the young Wordsworth grow disenchanted with the French Revolution’s dark side. The Kingdom of God may work through the movements of history, but it is not identical with them. To confuse God and history is idolatry. Misplaced hope is worship of the wrong thing.

Fifteen years after his tour of revolutionary France, Wordsworth wrote his epic poem, The Prelude, a spiritual biography of his generation of Romantics and idealists. In Book VI of The Prelude, he explored his personal struggle with hope and disillusionment through the narrative of his excursion through France to the Alps. Making his way south, he feasted and danced with happy revolutionaries, tasting the bliss of their new world. As he put it, he “found benevolence and blessedness / Spread like a fragrance everywhere, like Spring.”[vi]

But when he reached the Alps, he saw a troop of French soldiers plunder a peaceful mountain convent in the name of revolution and freedom from the oppression of religion. Actually, this desecration occurred two years later. But Wordsworth inserts it into his poem to dramatize with this single illustration his more gradual internal process of disappointment with the Revolution’s betrayal of his generation’s hopes.

In the poem, Wordsworth is shocked to witness the soldiers’ destruction of the convent and the expulsion of its “blameless inmates.” The revolutionary sword wields no justice in this act, only negation. The convent, a precious habitation of calm and spirit, set apart to remember eternity, perishes in a world gone mad.

As a disillusioned Wordsworth climbed higher in the Alps, he struggled with despair. He felt “inwardly oppress’d” by an “utter loss of hope itself, / And things to hope for.”[vii] (A loss of “things to hope for.” That is so 2020!) With the Revolution descending into the maelstrom of violence and naked power, where could he look for the true apocalypse that would break the power of the fallen world, renovate humanity, and restore the earthly paradise? 

The climb itself began to form an answer in his heart and mind. “For still,” he tells us, “[he] had hopes that pointed to the clouds.”[viii] He was a Romantic, after all, fluent in the language of Nature. The soaring peak of Mont Blanc, rising into the sky above, was an icon of Transcendent power far greater than revolutions or armies—or the countless dejections of history.  

We can imagine the music swelling here, as the poet approaches the summit to receive the grace of divine vision, reconciling in a flash all the contradictions of human existence. What actually happened was, Wordsworth got lost in the mist. Eventually, he ran into a peasant who told him that he’d already crested the pass and was in fact now going down other side. Though the poet’s hopes may have still pointed to the clouds, his body was on its way back to the complications of the world below. 

Wordsworth would find in this experience a metaphor for the life of faith. We don’t get the decisive apocalypse, the ultimate finale, in this life. God is too inventive to settle for our flawed approximations of a better world. There’s always going to be a mixture of good and ill, darkness and light, in our historical projects, as well as in the circuitous journey of every soul. Still, God has planted hope and desire deep in our hearts, and amid all the complications and setbacks of the human journey, we keep reaching for the clouds, and that in itself is something glorious. As Wordsworth put it:

And now, recovering, to my soul I say 
‘I recognize thy glory.’
… Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.[ix]

150 years after Wordsworth crossed the Alps, another poet, W. H. Auden, articulated his own understanding of the dance between disappointment and hope. As a political idealist in the 1930s, he would face his own disillusionment at the end of that decade. Revolutionary hopes for a better world had withered, and humanity, as far from the earthly paradise as it had ever been, was plunging into the inferno of the Second World War.

We hoped, we waited for the day
The State would wither clean away,
Expecting the Millennium
That theory promised us would come,
It didn’t.

Like Wordsworth—and all of us at the end of 2020—Auden was forced to accept the limits of historical existence, and to discern, as he put it, “what / Is possible and what is not, / To what conditions we must bow / In building the Just City now.”  

And like Wordsworth, Auden finds himself on a mountain: Dante’s Mount Purgatory, where the Earthly Paradise at the top is a distant goal, for which there are no shortcuts. 

The purgatorial hill we climb,
Where any skyline we attain
Reveals a higher ridge again.
Yet since, however much we grumble,
However painfully we stumble,
Such mountaineering all the same
Is, it would seem, the only game …

We have no cause to look dejected
When, wakened from a dream of glory,
We find ourselves in Purgatory,
Back on the same old mountain side
With only guessing for a guide …

O once again let us set out,
Our faith well balanced by our doubt,
Admitting that every step we take
Will certainly be a mistake,
But still believing we can climb
A little higher every time …[x]

We’re all on that mountain with the poet, still climbing, sheltering our hope like a candle in the winds of doubt, stumbling our way onward. Sometimes we lose the path, and go astray. And if we do attain a summit, a higher one still looms before us.

And all those apocalypses along the way, all those endings great and small, the vanishings of good things and bad things alike, turn out not to be last judgments or final judgments, bringing our story to a close. They are more like doors, where we pass from a tired world into a new reality.

As long as we are creatures of time and history, that reality will never be fixed or final. And with a God who is utterly free and endlessly inventive, who can describe what is to come? But if I may switch metaphors and poets, let me give you one of my favorite Advent images.

In her poem, “Rowing,” Anne Sexton imagines herself rowing toward an island called God. 

I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.

Sexton knows she’s not there yet, she is still in the Advent space of waiting and hoping. And, like Auden, she is aware of what is possible and what is not, and to what conditions she must bow as a flawed and finite being in search of Grace.

“This story,” she says, “ends with me still rowing.”[xi]

This, dear people of God, is where we begin the Advent journey. On the sea of faith, still rowing. Or maybe back on the same old mountain side, with only guessing for a guide. But always holding fast to hope that can never die, as we wait and watch for “something evermore about to be.”

“This story ends with me still rowing.”




[i] Dean W. Nelson,“Signs of endings all around us,” # 721 in Wonder, Love, and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Pension Fund).

[ii] The Gospel for Advent 1 (Year B) is Mark 13:24-37.

[iii] Thomas Noon Talfourd, The Poetical Talent of the Present Age, 1815), cited in M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 329-330.

[iv] In Abrams, 352.

[v] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathsn Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), X, 692 (1805), VI, 353-4 (1805). All citations from The Prelude are from this Norton Critical Edition.

[vi] The Prelude, VI, 368-369 (1805).

[vii] The Prelude, XI, 506 (1805).

[viii] The Prelude, VI, 587 (1850).

[ix] The Prelude, VI, 531-532, 538-542 (1805).

[x] W. H. Auden, “New Year Letter (January 1, 1940),” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976). We hoped (175); what is possible (190); the purgatorial hill (178-179).

[xi] Anne Sexton, “Rowing,” in The Awful Rowing Toward God (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). This is the first poem in the book. In the last, “The Rowing Endeth,” she finally reaches the island. God invites her to play poker. They both win, because that’s how it goes with God. The text of “Rowing is here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/rowing/ … “The Rowing Endeth” is here: https://opreach.org/2013/02/26/the-rowing-endeth/

O Emmanuel (Dec. 23)

Climate March, Seattle (Eastertide, 2017).

O Emmanuel, 
you show us the face of divinity,
you reveal the fullness of our humanity.

Come: enable us to become who we are.

As Advent draws to a close, we speak the most impossible of divine names: Emmanuel––God with us. “How can this be?” wondered the young woman chosen to be the Mother of God. How can human flesh contain the Infinite? It is the profoundest of mysteries, and the how of it is beyond our grasp. But this much we are meant to know: Incarnation doesn’t just happen to God. It happens to us as well. 

In the Nativity, our humanity became a place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. As St. Paul put it, “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory” (II Cor. 3:18). Imagine that!

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,” said Thomas Merton, “though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race. 

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Confirmands at Saint-Sulpice (Paris, Eve of Pentecost, 2012).

O Rex Gentium (Dec. 22)

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (detail, c. 1481-2, Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

O Desire 
of all nations and people,
you are the strong force
that draws us toward you,
the pattern which choreographs creation
to Love’s bright music.


Come: teach us the steps
that we may dance with you.

The sixth Antiphon goes to the heart of the Advent mystery: we are made of longing, born with a core of desire, an unquenchable thirst, for something we lack. Advent invites us to remember our longing and identify our deepest desire.

Some people think that Christianity is about the eradication of desire. Not so. Faith is the education of desire, weaning it from false objects and inadequate attainments, and directing it toward its true and ultimate end, the divine communion of the holy and undivided Trinity, the ceaseless dance of love which we are invited to share. 

Thomas Traherne, 17th-century Anglican poet, said, “Be sensible of your wants, that you may be sensible of your treasures.” What he meant was, if we want to know who we are, and why we are here, we need to pay attention to our deepest hunger, our deepest longing. What do we really want? What do we long for above all else?

When you figure that out––that is where you’ll find God: in the place where your desire is strongest. It doesn’t matter what name it goes by. Pay attention. Dig deeper. God is there.

Projections of Picasso’s art on the surfaces of a limestone cave (Carrieres des Lumieres, Les Baux de Provence, 2018).

O Oriens (Dec. 21)

Dawn on the Camino de Santiago (Maundy Thursday, 2014).

O Rising Dawn, 
bright splendor of the light eternal,
illumining all things with Love’s radiance.

Come: enlighten those who sit in darkness,
who dwell in the shadow of death.

At the beginning of the longest night, this antiphon is preoccupied with light: the eternal radiance of God and the way it penetrates the darkest shadows of history and the human soul. What else is Advent but waiting for the dawn? 

For mystics and theologians, the image of God as light is more than an analogy drawn from physical experience. Splendor and glory are inherent to the very essence of divinity. But for those who sit in darkness––and who has not, at one time or another?––the light of heaven may be eclipsed: hidden from our eyes, absent from our hearts. As songwriter Bruce Cockburn testifies, “Sometimes you have to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

The poet Kathleen Raine describes the time of trial when “the curtain is down, the veil drawn” over the world’s deep radiance. “Nothing means or is,” she says. But that is not where God leaves her:

Yet I saw once
The woven light of which all [things] are made . . .
To have seen
Is to know always.

The Bainbridge Island ferry sails into the dawn (Puget Sound, 2014).

O Clavis David (Dec. 20)

Chiharu Shiota, Keys in the Hand (Venice Biennale 2015).

O Key of David, 
you open, and none can shut;
you shut, and none can open.

Come, lead us out of the prisons
that oppress body, mind and soul;
welcome us into the open space of possibility;
let us breathe again.

This antiphon begins, O Clavis David (“O key of David). The Latin word for “key” was a favorite pun among medieval preachers. Clavis means “key,” but clavus means “nail.” The key that opens the door for us is the nail of Calvary, where Christ died to conquer death and sin.

Jesus, and the divine way of self-diffusive love which he embodied, is the key that unlocks every human prison, from the metal cages on our southern border to the oppressive interior confines of fear, guilt, sin, despair. 

Has you ever been in some kind of prison? Do you remember what you felt when you found the key? What was it like when the door swung open and you walked through it? Perhaps some who read this are still waiting for this key. 

O Clavis, come and lead those who sit in darkness, who live in the shadow of death––or grief, or fear, or addiction. Deliver us all into the place of light and joy and freedom.

Be the key that sets us free.
Open the door and welcome us home.

In Brighton, UK, an alternative worship group, Beyond, turned 24 beach huts into an Advent calendar. Every evening a different hut was opened to reveal an art installation about the coming of Christ. This hut was opened on Christmas Eve, radiating “love’s pure light” into the December night.

O Radix Jesse (Dec. 19)

Gil de Siloé, Tree of Jesse (detail) on the altar retablo in the Chapel of St. Anne, Burgos Cathedral, Spain (c. 1498). The family tree of Jesus grows from the body of King David’s father.

O Root of Jesse, 
coming to flower in Jesus,
who in turn bears fruit
in all who are grafted
into the royal line of God’s family.

Come: let us never be severed
from the roots and branches
that nourish us in every moment.

The “Tree of Jesse,” a frequent motif in Christian art since the 11th century, is Jesus’ family tree, linking him to the Davidic line (Jesse of Bethlehem was David’s father). The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke span 28 and 43 generations respectively, but the number of figures shown on the tree is usually far less due to spatial constraints. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1), and most artists have provided a literal version of that image. The Tree of Jesse thus affirms Jesus’ pedigree as the heir of divine promises given to David, as well as Abraham and others before him. 

But the larger meaning of the root and branch image is that Jesus did not come out of nowhere, disconnected from the long course of human history. He was rooted in an ongoing spiritual evolution of humanity since the dawn of consciousness. His appearance, the product of nature and culture as instruments of the Holy Spirit, was the first flowering of creation’s immense journey toward union with its Creator. 

The New Testament says that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”
(Hebrews 12:2). In the 20th century, the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin expressed this developmental image in terms of a cosmic evolution: “the presence of something greater than ourselves moving forward within us and in our midst.” We are all destined to be blossoms and fruit on the Jesse Tree.

If we are all truly grafted into the royal line of God’s family, how shall we then live––and grow––accordingly? Let us never be severed from the roots and branches that nourish us in every moment. 

This is the third of seven in a daily series on the O Antiphons for the last week of Advent.

O Adonai (Dec. 18)

Christ in Majesty, Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, France (12th century).

O Adonai, 
ruler of time and history,
manifestation of divine dominion
to your chosen people,
may your presence be our burning bush.

Come: bring justice to the poor,
food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless
protection to the vulnerable
,
freedom to the prisoner.

For the ancient Jews, the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush was too holy to be spoken, so they substituted the word Adonai (“my Lord”) when addressing God in their worship. This became Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. We still pray Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) in Christian ritual.

Will Campbell, the Baptist preacher who wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, once asked, “What’s the biggest lie told in America?” The answer he gave was: “Jesus is Lord.” What would our lives––and our neighborhoods, our nation, our economy, our politics––look like if we really believed that the Lord of love and justice, the divine defender of the poor and vulnerable, is in fact the ultimate ruler of time and history? 

Adonai, bring that day closer!

Christ as Pantocrator (ruler of the universe) on the dome of the Katholikon, Hosios Loukas monastery, Greece.