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.

O Sapientia (Dec. 17)

One of the joys of Advent’s final days is the praying of the O Antiphons, seven eloquent prayers based on biblical images suggesting attributes of the divine. Liturgically, they begin and end the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to December 23rd, but they are also a rich resource for personal prayer as Christmas draws near. Each antiphon is both a greeting and a supplication, awakening our attention and shaping our intention.

Over the next seven evenings, I will post a brief reflection on the Antiphon for the coming day.
As you journey to Bethlehem, may you walk in beauty.

Henri Matisse, Dance (1909-1910).

O Sophia,
you are the truth of harmonious form,
the pattern of existence, the shapeliness of love.

Come: illumine us, enable us, empower us
to live in your Wisdom, your Torah, your Way.

The life of faith is not an invention of our own. Rather, we are invented by the Creator, invented by Love. There is a pattern that preexists us, a pattern born of divine love and woven into the structure of the universe. Sophia (wisdom), Torah (teaching), and Tao (principle) are ancient words for this pattern. 

Holy Wisdom is like a dance. If we are attentive to the music, and surrender ourselves to its rhythms, we will be caught up in the divine choreography. It is what we were made for. If we fight the pattern, we get out of step, and our bodies, our souls, and our societies become awkward and clumsy. 

But do not be discouraged. Sophia is a patient and gentle teacher. Call upon her, and she will guide your feet into the way of peace. 

Blessed are those who walk in the Way (Camino de Santiago, May 2014).

The Virgin of Guadalupe

The welcoming Virgin above the portal of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles (sculpture by Robert Graham).

She is reaching out her arms tonight;
Lord, my poverty is real:
I pray roses shall rain down again
from Guadalupe on her hill.

Who am I to doubt these mysteries,
cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your pilgrims here,
but I am most in need of hope.

 –– Tom Russell, “Guadalupe”

 

We entered the old adobe mission by starlight, hours before dawn. The church was packed with countless worshippers, celebrating mass for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. After the final blessing, we all kept our places, anticipating the mystery play to come––an Advent tradition performed by El Teatro Campesino, an acting troupe whose roots go back to the fields of central California. Founded by Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”) in the 1960s, they performed guerilla theater during protests by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and over the years they have continued to develop community-based theater. Now, in the 18th-century church of San Juan Bautista, they were about to perform La Virgen del Tepeyac.

It began with a thunder of drums. Dozens of players in Aztec regalia danced up the aisle, casting huge shadows on the walls of the nave. But their celebration would soon give way to a darker theme: the subjugation of Mexico’s indigenous people by Spanish conquistadores and friars. Aztec costumes were replaced by peasant garb, Franciscan robes and Spanish armor, and the native people were baptized into a new faith––submitting to the grievous inequities of the culture that imposed it. As the play proceeded, the audience took the side of the oppressed, and waited anxiously for God to do the same.

Countless millions throughout the Americas know what happened next. In December of 1531, on a barren hill in a place called Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec Christian convert. Speaking in his native language, she told him to deliver a message to the bishop: He must build a church not for the rich and powerful, but for the poor and the oppressed.

Juan Diego managed to get an audience with the prelate, but it did not go well. The message was absurd, and the messenger even more so. Would God choose a lowly peasant for divine revelation? Mary’s humble ambassador was quickly shown the exit. Nevertheless, spurred on by more visitations from the Virgin, Juan Diego pressed the message entrusted to him. Exasperated, the bishop demanded a miraculous proof, thinking that would end the matter.

In her final appearance, Mary told Juan Diego to return to that hill one more time. When he reached the summit, he found the barren ground covered with roses––in December! He gathered as many as his cloak could hold, and took them to the episcopal palace. When he poured the roses out at the feet of the astonished bishop, the Virgin’s image was revealed, imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak.

The roses and the image were the stuff of miracles, but even more miraculous was the dignity accorded Juan Diego and all the indigenous poor by the Queen of Heaven. The story quickly spread, and the Virgin of Guadalupe became the patron saint of the Americas. The famous image of the brown-skinned mother of Jesus has become a ubiquitous sign of the God who raises up the poor and lowly, who works miracles in unexpected places.

On this feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so many people in the Americas continue to suffer from the horrific cruelties of ruthless oppressors and unjust systems. Tragically, the United States government, polluted by white nationalism, has become one of the more notorious offenders. Juan Diego’s successors once again sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Let us pray that Guadalupe’s roses may rain down again upon the barren hills of a heartless world.

I saw El Teatro Campesino’s play twenty years ago, but its conclusion offered an image of grace which has never left me. When the play was over, the whole cast processed down the aisle, singing together as they walked. Actors who had played the oppressors went arm in arm with those who had played the peasants. The people who had been on opposite sides––the lions and lambs of a tragic history––now shared a joyful song, as if they were marching together into God’s redemptive future.

The great doors of the church swung open, and the light of the rising sun flooded into the dark interior like water through a bursting dam. Just outside, the cast turned and stopped, forming a corridor for the audience to pass through. As we made our way into the brilliance of morning, it seemed like the gate of heaven––all those shining brown faces, blessing us with smiles and singing.

And I thought: This is how history will end. Neither a bang nor a whimper, but a song.

 

Here is one of the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego in El Teatro Campesino’s La Virgen del Tepeyac.

Blinded by the Light –– An Advent Meditation

spectra III, an installation by Ryoji Ikeda at Venice Biennale 2019: “a blinding excess, rendering the space itself almost invisible.” (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart describes atheism as “a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd. . . [T]rue philosophical atheism,” he says, “must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”[1]

For the people of Advent, “a world proportionate to our own hopes” is too mean a thing. The mystery of the world and the destiny of mortals are too deep, too immense, to be contained by language or thought. They exceed everything we can ask or imagine. They explode our limited notions of what is real and what is possible.

Not for the people of Advent that “tragic absence of curiosity” so common in a complacent secular culture too busy amusing itself to consider the deepest questions of human existence. Advent people want to know who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going, and how long we’ve got. Most of all, we want to know whether we matter, and whether we are loved.

But are such questions answerable? Our thoughts and concepts only take us so far, like a compass pointing north. “North” is a pretty useful guide––until you reach the North Pole, where the very concept of north loses its meaning. Just so, the closer our thoughts take us toward the divine center, the less they are able to tell us.

At the end of The Divine Comedy, when Dante beholds the presence of God unveiled at last, words fail him:

What then I saw is more than tongue can say.
Our human speech is dark before the vision.
The ravished memory swoons and falls away. [2]

The mystery we call God is always beyond us. Beyond our grasp, beyond our language, beyond our sight. The mystics and great spiritual teachers sometime use the word darkness to convey their experience in close encounters with the divine.

But what they call the darkness of God is not so much a matter of cognitive deprivation, where divinity simply hides its incommunicable essence from finite minds and hearts unprepared to receive it. No, they say, the darkness of God is not deprivation, but saturation. It is not an absence of light, but an excess of glory, that makes our eyes become so dim to divine presence.

It sounds paradoxical––to be blinded by the light of God––but only paradox has the wings to carry us beyond the prosaic into the heavenly place where all contraries are reconciled. The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, like John Donne and George Herbert, reveled in such holy paradox. Henry Vaughan, for example, wrote that

There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim. [3]

Was Vaughan just playing with words, or was he on to something? At this year’s Venice Biennale, I had a very literal experience of being blinded by the light in an installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. What happened to me there is perfectly described by the text posted at the entrance:

“spectra III” consists of a corridor of bright fluorescent tubes. This all-encompassing installation bathes the visitor in light so bright it is difficult to see. Akin to a blizzard of data, the experience short-circuits our ability to process what we are seeing, and results paradoxically in a sensory wipe-out. Ryoji Ikeda sees this state of overload as opening the door to an experience of the sublime––a landscape of light too complex to comprehend. The installation functions in parallel to the experience of total darkness, yet inverts this experience. We are similarly disoriented but instead of an absence of light by which to see, there is a blinding excess, rendering the space itself almost invisible.

That’s exactly what happened to me in that corridor. I had never before experienced such a literal analogue to the blinding luminosity described by the mystics. It was truly a “deep and dazzling darkness.” Almost painful, to tell the truth. Certainly too much for my mortal eyes to take in.

It may seem paradoxical to speak of the darkness of God at the beginning of Advent, when we light candles against the lengthening nights, and pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light,” as if the soul’s journey were a straightforward itinerary from deepest midnight to eternal day. But as the mystics and poets insist, God-talk must be paradoxical to be useful and true. “God draws straight with crooked lines,” they say. God is the burning bush and the cloud of unknowing. You can’t have one without the other.

“God goes belonging to every riven thing,” says the poet Christian Wiman.

He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
 
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made. [4]

God is “apart” from what we know, transcendent to our empirical minds––minds which themselves keep God at a distance through our forgetfulness, idolatry, and egoism. And yet God wants to be near, wants to be known. God “goes belonging” to every riven thing: the broken, the wounded, the lost. God goes belonging to us all. And in so doing God’s own self is riven into the contraries of darkness and light, near and far, infinite and incarnate, present and absent, visible and invisible.

Advent’s great themes are seeking and waiting, hoping and expecting, longing and desiring. We go looking for God, searching for signs of God’s appearing.

Sometimes, in our search, we seem only to find darkness, silence, or absence, because we are looking in the wrong place, or in the wrong way. Or we are simply looking for the wrong thing, and need to be denied the fulfillment of inadequate expectations because they are too small or ill-proportioned to fit the immeasurable desire of God. For example, we might expect a well-armed conqueror instead of a servant and sufferer. Or we might expect an irresistible righter of wrongs instead of a helpless refugee child lying in a manger­­––or, these days, lying in a cage.

We were made to be in union with God, and our desire for that union is the deepest truth within us. We feel incomplete and unfinished without it. But our desire often goes astray and misses its mark, attaching itself to something well short of God. If our desire gets stuck on anything less than God, we will waste our lives worshipping the wrong thing,

In a 1967 film by Jean-Luc Godard, a well-dressed couple in a sporty convertible pick up a hitchhiker who tells them he is God. They are very excited to meet him. “Can you do miracles?” asks the man, “Can you make me richer?” His wife adds her own requests: “Can you make me young and beautiful?” And “God” replies, “Really? Is that all you want? I don’t do miracles for idiots like you!” [5]

One of the reasons that Christians worship together and pray together and learn together is to train our desire, so we don’t wait for the wrong thing, or hope for the wrong thing, or love the wrong thing, but always keep our eyes on the prize. Admittedly, God isn’t all that easy, and God is certainly not tame. As Emily Dickinson said, the divine “invites––appalls––endows–– / Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves–– / Returns––suggests––convicts––enchants / Then––flings in Paradise––“[6]

Still, we are not deterred. Still, we cry Maranatha! Come, Lord, come! At least some of us do. There are those who don’t, for they think God is too invisible or too impossible to take into account. But isn’t that the point? Nothing we can see can save us. Nothing that is possible can rescue us. Paradox, paradox…

The human condition, suspended somewhere between the finite and the infinite, is a complicated puzzle, a question with no clear answer. As for the times we live in, Humphrey Bogart summed it up nicely in the film Beat the Devil:

“What’ve you got to worry about? We’re only adrift on an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s likely to explode any moment.”

Is God coming to save us? As we know, that question is often answered by delay. Or worse, silence. We peer toward an uncertain horizon, looking for the One who comes with clouds descending, or at least for the comforting glow of dawn. But the horizon is hidden by what Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century German theologian, called “that obscuring haze of impossibility.”

And the darker and more impossible that obscuring haze of impossibility is known to be, the more truly the Necessity shines forth and the less veiledly it draws near and is present… I give You thanks, my God, because… You have shown me that You cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility appears and faces me.” [7]

I love Nicholas’ name for God: “the Necessity.” And I love his image of divine revelation as the moment when “impossibility appears and faces me.” The impossibility, the beyondness of God––beyond all knowing, beyond all saying, beyond all seeing––abolishes our limiting notions of what is possible, making a way where there is no way. O for that Night! where I in him may live invisible and dim.

All this talk of the darkness of God, the hiddenness of God, the elusiveness of God, may seem to run counter to the more affirmative language we usually employ in the liturgy as well as in the conversations we have together as people of faith.

We call ourselves God’s friends. We experience God’s closeness in times of gratitude and times of need. We see God’s hand in works of justice and mercy, and feel God’s Spirit in the reconciling and sacrificial love of human relationships. We meet God in Scripture, in community, in nature, and in beauty. We meet God in the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed.

But sometimes God is hard to find or hard to perceive, and in those times we must speak the Advent language of not-exactly, not-here, and not-yet. That’s why the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent always has Jesus warning us to be on the ready. “Out with the old and in with the new! The world of the past is falling down, falling down. Whatever is going to happen next, expect the unexpected.”

Faced with the collapse of old ways and familiar certainties, where shall we look for God in the brave new world?

There’s a story about a man who dreams he is wandering among the labyrinthine stacks of the immense Clementine library in Prague. A librarian wearing dark glasses approaches him to ask, “What are you looking for?”

“I am looking for God,” he says.

“Ah,” said the librarian. “God is one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine Library. My parents and my parents’ parents searched for that letter. I myself have gone blind searching for it.” [8]

We’re all searching for that word, that moment, that appearing. It may bring the holy blindness of the mystics, or it may bathe you in the gentler glow of illumination. God only knows. Either way, you will not be left comfortless. God goes belonging to every riven heart.

In this season of Advent, I invite you to contemplate the paradoxical depths of the divine, to immerse yourselves in periods of wordless prayer within God’s luminous darkness. Set aside your concepts and your dogmas, and wait in the stillness of unknowing for the Word to speak. The God who is beyond all language and beyond all knowing wants to disclose Godself to us, wants to give Godself to us. That is the divine desire––the siege of God at the gates of our heart.

Stay awake. Pray for grace. Do not lose faith. As Jackson Browne exhorts us in his great Advent song, “For a Dancer”:

Keep a fire burning in your eye,
and pay attention to the open sky––
you never know what will be coming down.

One last thing.

Paul Celan was a Romanian Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust. It has been said that his difficult poetry “is not willed obscurity” but “comes out of lived experience and is ‘born dark.’” [9]  Celan knew the darkness of hell, but he also knew another kind of darkness, a darkness which paradoxically contains the seeds of light.

His poem called “The Narrowing” [10] includes a stanza of four short lines that express the spirit of Advent people––the people who sit in darkness without losing faith in the light to come. In just 16 words, the verb “came” is spoken 5 times, like an incantation in response to our beseeching prayer, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” What comes, comes in the dark, but it brings a desire for light:

Came, came.
Came a word, came,
came through the night,
wanted to glow, wanted to glow.

 

 

 

This post was delivered as a sermon on the First Sunday of Advent, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

For links to other Advent resources: How Long? Not Long!––The Advent Collection

 

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 16.

[2] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso xxxiii: 55, trans. John Ciardi.

[3] Henry Vaughan, “The Night,” cited in Peter O’Leary, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 85.

[4] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in Every Riven Thing (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011).

[5] Jean-Luc Godard, Weekend (1967).

[6] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below.”

[7] Cited in Didier Maleuvre, The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 143.

[8] From “The Secret Miracle,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges.

[9] From Shoshana Olidort’s Chicago Tribune review of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, cited on the Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-celan

[10] The original German title is “Engführung.”

I Say Rejoice – A Homily for Advent 3

“Pay attention to the open sky / You never know what will be coming down.” –– Jackson Browne

Rejoice in the Lord always. Let me say it again: Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near. . . And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 –– Philippians 4:4-7

So said St. Paul 2000 years ago, and we have heard him say it again today: Rejoice!And because these words became the traditional opening chant in the medieval mass on the Third Sunday of Advent, this day became known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for “rejoice.”

Rejoice is one of the most important words in the Bible. It’s full of electricity, meant to jolt you out of sleep and despair. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” said the prophet Zephaniah. “God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will dance with shouts of joy for you.”

God will dance! In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the word for rejoice is also the word for dance. An old Jewish Midrash takes great delight in this double meaning:

 In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him…saying, “This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

So on Rejoice Sunday, as we celebrate the dancing God, who’s this wild man of the desert crashing our party, calling us snakes and shouting about wrath? Who let him in?

You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? Do you really think you are going to escape from the mess you’ve made of this world? Is that what you think? Don’t tell me about your spiritual heritage. That’s not going to save you! You’ve got to show you mean business. You’ve got to turn yourselves around and get right with God. You say you’re Abraham’s children. Well, God doesn’t care a fig about that. You say you go to church. So what?

Are you bearing any fruit? I don’t see it. Your hearts are nothing but dead trees. Where’s the fruit? Where’s the juice? You know what happens to dead trees? They get cut down, leaving nothing but stumps.

Look, I’m baptizing with water the ones who really want to change. But I tell you, there’s someone coming after me who’s a lot more powerful than I am – I’m not even fit to tie his shoes. And he’s not going to be using any water to baptize you. He’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit – and with fire.

The winnowing fork is already in his hand. He’s clearing the threshing floor and gathering the wheat into the barn. But the chaff? Oh, the chaff he is going to burn in a fire that will never go out.”

So people, listen up. It’s time to get ready.
Stay awake. Keep watch. Change your lives.

Such an intrusion, such a message, and such a messenger, seem shockingly out of place on Rejoice Sunday. Thank God no wild prophets have wandered into our assembly today. But you never know!

About 25 years ago, a pastor in California asked me if I would make a surprise Advent appearance at his church as John the Baptist. No one else in his congregation knew this was going to happen, not even the ushers, who looked at me nervously when I entered the church in bare feet and a tattered old robe. At the moment when the gospel was to be read, I came up the aisle, looking people in the eyes as I delivered my fiery message. Then, after one last warning to stay awake and keep watch, I slipped out the door and disappeared.

This bit of guerilla liturgy got mixed reviews from the congregation, as you might imagine. But if the Bible is a living word, it doesn’t just tell stories about people in the past. It confronts and challenges us in the present as well, as the biblical truths retell themselves in our own stories.

Be that as it may, what are we to make of the Baptist’s unsettling message? Perhaps his most troubling phrase is “the wrath to come.” It conjures up all those abusive old images of an angry, judgmental and vindictive god, images which have done a lot of harm over the centuries, even though Jesus made it pretty clear that the heart of the law is mercy, and the end of all our stories is the victory of Love.

So what is the “wrath to come”? I believe it is really something of our own devising. If we break the laws of the universe, we will find ourselves contradicted by a reality more true and lasting than the constructions of our own self-will. If we engage in destructive behaviors, those chickens will come home to roost. Or as C. S. Lewis put it, “We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.”

We all experience this kind of blowback on the level of personal behavior, whenever we reap what we have sown. But it is true on a collective level as well. The rapid acceleration of climate change makes this abundantly clear. For decades we humans have been either unwilling or unable to change our ways, and now the consequent “wrath” is getting too big to ignore––although some still try!

A recent cartoon depicting a climate change denier puts this perfectly. A skeleton is lying on its back on ground that is baked and parched. Nothing is growing there. It’s a wasteland devoid of life. And the skeleton still has its fingers in its ears. Nobody’s going to convince himabout the wrath to come.

Perhaps the most interesting­­––and hopeful––thing about today’s gospel reading is that the people, even after being so fiercely chastised and challenged by the prophet, do not put their fingers in their ears. Instead, they ask the Baptist, “What then should we do?” John responds to each questioner in very concrete ways. And as the story concludes, what looked like judgment––the axe and the fire––turned out to be a strange form of good news, the best thing that could have happened, because it spurred people to let go of the unsustainable chaff and begin to change their ways.

Prophets can be hard, but they are so necessary to move us to repentance and action. Thank God for all those who push us where we need to go, who urge us toward transformation. We must change our lives, they tell us. And the time is now.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the immense challenges looming before us. Where do we turn for the hope and courage and strength we need for the facing of this hour? What faith says is this: We turn to God our Savior. We turn to the one in whom all our hope is grounded.

But in a world as secular as ours, where divine intention or activity is not a natural presupposition, and things just go on happening whether God is thought about or not, it can seem unintelligible to call God our Savior. What does it mean to say that God will save us? Doesn’t our culture teach us to act as if we are pretty much on our own, for better or worse? Isn’t God an unnecessary hypothesis?

If the question of God were nothing more than a theoretical proposition with which we agree or disagree, or simply ignore in the daily course of our lives, then it’s easy to live as if God makes no difference. But belief is not a theoretical matter. Belief is about how we live, and what kind of story we belong to.

It is certainly possible to live inside a story where God is absent or nonexistent. A lot of people do it. But I find that to be a bleak and unpromising account of reality––perhaps satisfactory, or even exhilarating, when things are good, but too vulnerable to cynicism and despair when the world goes off the rails.

People of faith, however, abide in a different story, a story where death does not have the last word, a story where Love wins. To say that God will save us is to belong to thatstory, and to live accordingly. And what are the fruits of faith’s life-shaping story?––trust, confidence, hope, and the kind of invincible joy which St. Paul proclaims with such passion. “Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!”

Paul’s own joy was often tested. Even in jail, he wrote to his friends, “Do not worry about anything. Live in hope.” And countless saints have done exactly that.

In the book of Lamentations, a text drenched in the tears of profound suffering, we find one of the most hopeful verses in all of Scripture:

When my soul is bowed down, I keep one thing in mind, and so recover hope: Love’s mercies are never exhausted; they are renewed every morning (Lam. 3:20-23).

In the faith story, no matter how rocky the road or dangerous the journey, our path leads beyond every annihilation toward an unimaginable fulfilment. What has been broken will be restored, what has been wounded will be healed, what has been lost will be found. If such a hope were a statement about the world, it would be a foolish optimism, soon blown away by the winds of calamity. But Christian hope is not a statement about the world. It is a statement about God.

Hope is not about what the creature can do; it is about the never-ending resourcefulness of the Creator, who turns darkness into light and brings life out of death. Even to the blackest night, God will bring the dawn.

One of my Advent rituals is to play my recording of Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” an encouraging song imbued with prayerful hope, despite being written in a time of personal loss:

Keep a fire for the human race,
and let your prayers go drifting into space
you never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near;
just as easy it could all disappear,
along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.
Go on and make a joyful sound.

Into a dancer you have grown,
From a seed somebody else has thrown,
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own. . .

We are all dancers, the people who rejoice in hope, come what may. Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around. Go on and make a joyful sound.

Now to say that God is our Savior does not mean that God does all the work. Faith is not passivity. To be called into the story of God’s unfolding future means we ourselves have a lot of work to do: the work of changing our lives, the work of letting go what is unsustainable, the work of repairing the world, the work of becoming Love’s body in the here and now. Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own.

We do not do this work alone.
The Eternal One works beside us––and within us.
Our strength lies in a power deeper than our own capacities.
Our story is more than a dream of our own making.
And God’s mercies, Love’s kindnesses, are never exhausted.