How long? Not Long! – The Advent Collection

Oregon dawn (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

–– Samuel John Stone

Of all the seasons, Advent is the one I love the best. Its flavors are so richly complex: prophetic shouts and angelic whispers, deepest dark and magical light, wintry cold and warming hearts, the end of the world and the birth of the new. And its symphonic progression, from the eschatological thunder of its opening movement to the midnight hush in the shepherds’ field, sounds the profoundest depths of the cosmos and the soul.

I fell in love with Advent as a child, when I knew no distinction between sacred and profane. The glow of colored lights on almost every house, our family prayers around the Advent wreath, the search for the perfect tree, the interminable wait for presents to be opened, the smell of baking cookies shaped like stars and Santas, the glorious texts of Isaiah and Luke on Sunday mornings, and hearty renditions of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” and “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”––they were all about the same thing: the wonder of a world where magic is afoot and Love’s gifts are never exhausted.

Over the years, as I have grown more acquainted with the sorrow, pain and injustice of mortal life and human history, the meanings of Advent have only deepened. And in today’s evil times, the practice of hope is more necessary than ever.

I have written more posts about Advent than any other season, and I gather all the links together here. Wander through them as you will. Try the practices. Share whatever you like. And may your own Advent bring you blessing, joy, and the nearness of holy Presence.

Practices

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent –– This has been my most popular Advent post, with simple practices to deepen our experience of the season. “In a month that is already far too busy and rushed, these are not offered as one more to-do list to work through, but as ways to slow down, take a breath, pay attention, and make room in our lives for the birth of the Holy.” The 10 ways are: Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving. (Dec. 6, 2014)

Praying the O Antiphons –– These sublime antiphons (best known in the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”) are a beautiful way to pray during Advent. This post includes my contemporary variations on the ancient texts. On each of the seven days before Christmas, put the appropriate antiphon on your mirror or refrigerator, and pray without ceasing. (Dec. 17, 2014)

The O Antiphons: Drenched in the Speech of God –– Further reflections on what the antiphons have to tell us. “God is not a hypothesis to be tested or a puzzle to be solved by detached observers, but an experience to be encountered by receptive participants, those who know how to say ‘O!’” (Dec. 17, 2015)

Theology

Dancing with Time: An Advent Prelude –– My most recent Advent post is a meditation on time, a major preoccupation of the season. As W. H. Auden said, “Time is our choice of How to love and Why.” (Dec. 1, 2017)

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto) –– Worlds end all the time. Neither personal worlds nor public worlds last forever. That may bring sadness, but it is also the foundation of hope’s possiblities. “Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.” (Nov. 25, 2016)

“God Isn’t Fixing This” –– For an Advent liturgy, I constructed an enormous wall, made of newspapers with distressing headlines, and set it as a veil between the congregation and the beauty of the sanctuary. In the course of the liturgy, the wall was torn down, symbolizing God’s grace breaking into our troubled history. As I wrote in this post (after yet another American gun massacre): “What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.” (Dec. 15, 2015)

“God is alive, surprising us everywhere” –– “God is alive, surprising us everywhere. The message of a dream, intimating something more real than language. But what? Not an idea in my mind. A feeling in my body. I tried briefly to give it words. Nearness. Urgency. Strength. Presence. Then I let the words go, and rested in whatever it was. In times so dark and dangerous, it felt––consoling. Heaven and earth may pass away, but this Presence will not. We are not alone. Perhaps, even loved. In the deep gloom after the presidential election, I was given the grace of three small revelations. One came during a concert, one in a dream, and one from the mouth of a homeless woman. (Dec. 13, 2016)

Worship

Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 1: The Electric Eschaton) –– “As the liturgical season when the old is judged and found wanting and the new is never quite what anyone expects, Advent seems particularly suited to a disruption of routine and the intrusion of novelty into the worship experience.” In the apocalyptic year of 1968, I curated a multi-media Advent mash-up of sounds and images from films, rock and roll, poetry, political documentaries and other diverse sources to evoke two Advent themes: “Break on through to the other side” and “Please don’t be long.” This post includes an unusual 20-minute audio collage which, 49 years later, remains a unique artifact in the history of preaching. Wear headphones and turn it up! (Dec. 13, 2014)

Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 2: Homecoming) –– In a pioneering example of a worship “installation,” people journeyed in small groups through a series of multi-sensory experiences. “The journey was a dying (baptismal figure, narrowing of space, sounds and images of a yearning world, an unknown way, darkness) and a rising (emergence into an open, “transcendent” space, and being gathered into the community of the eucharist). It was a losing (leaving the original assembly and the main space) and a finding (rediscovering the community and the original space).” (Dec. 20, 2014)

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation –– In an annual December art experience by musician Phil Kline in cities across America, participants collectively create a river of sound moving through the streets––a striking instance of Advent surprise and wonder. “If God is more of a situation than an object, then the community, relationality, mystery, beauty, wonder, delight, and communion produced by the event seemed apt expressions of divinity taking ‘place,’ or ‘being here now.’ You didn’t have to name it to live it.” (Dec. 21, 2015)

Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 2: Homecoming)

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In Part 1, I explained the rationale for cultivating innovation and surprise in Advent liturgies, and described a multimedia preaching “performance” in 1968. The subject of Part 2 is an experiential journey taken by the congregation through a very early example of a worship installation, curated at a Los Angeles church on the Third Sunday of Advent, 1972.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, situated between downtown Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, is one of the most beautiful churches in the city. Modeled after a late 12th century Romanesque Italian church, it is a cathedral-sized longitudinal space with a high ceiling (it would later become the Pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Los Angeles). The interior walls are plain concrete, but the chancel is adorned with colorful marble and mosaics, drawing the eye of worshippers from the monotone of the nave toward the alluring colors surrounding the high altar, where a spectacular carving of the risen Christ is the terminus that completes and fulfills the spatial momentum.

Built by a prosperous white congregation in the 1920’s, St. John’s in 1972 was multicultural, with African-Americans comprising the majority, along with Anglicans of Belizean descent and a sizeable contingent of white liberals. For many of the members it was a destination church, known for both its liturgy and its social witness. I had attended seminary with its new rector, Bill Persell, who brought me in to start a monthly evening liturgy called The Third Sunday, a “liturgy lab” developing cutting edge experiential eucharists, grounded in the arts and organized around themes ranging from the liturgical year to politics and the environment. Every month about 200 people, many driving an hour or more, made a pilgrimage to those unusual and compelling evening liturgies.

For the Advent liturgy, people stood in the back of the nave, facing away from the distant altar, for spoken choruses from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, interwoven with sung verses from the hymn, Sleepers Wake. After several Scripture readings, people were taken “eastward” (toward the altar) in small groups to begin a multi-sensory journey through the ambulatory, a long enclosed passageway circling behind the chancel.

The journey began in the baptistry, where each person (let’s call them “pilgrims”) was sprinkled with water from the font as the priest said, “Awake, O sleeper. Rise from the dead, and Christ will be your light.” (Ephesians 5:14) From there the pilgrims proceeded through a succession of sounds (mostly recordings of poetry) and images (projected film and slides). The first poem was the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, recited in the doleful voice of John Ciardi (“Midway in my life’s journey I went astray in a dark wood …”). Beyond that the path descended into the claustrophobic space of the boiler room, where “hell” consisted of seeing only your own image played back on several closed-circuit video monitors.

Ascending back into the ambulatory, the journey continued through a succession of projected images of a broken and longing world. At the halfway point an audio loop played Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (“the Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full … But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar …”). Beyond that bleak utterance the path entered a section of total darkness, where the pilgrims had to feel their way along the walls toward a dim blue light somewhere beyond the curve. It was an experiential analogy of faith’s “dark night.”

Near the far end of the U-shaped passage, the voice of T. S. Eliot intoned the end of his Four Quartets (“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”). Leading the group to a curtained doorway, the guide then spoke words from Auden’s For the Time Being:

For the garden is the only place there is,
but you will not find it until you have looked for it everywhere
and found nowhere that is not a desert.[i]

Passing through the curtain, the pilgrims exited the cramped space of the ambulatory into the luminous openness of a candlelit chapel with golden mosaic walls, where they waited to welcome those who came after them. The luminous environment and the loving smiles seemed an apt icon for the future being prepared for the friends of God. Advent indeed.

Once everyone had made the journey, we gathered round the altar in the main church for the eucharist. My faded copy of the mimeographed bulletin provides a quote from Andre Hamman, D.F.M. as the epigraph for this “homecoming” section of the liturgy:

“The terminus of the Exodus is the reassembly of the people of God to celebrate the definitive and universal Pasch … The baptized can quit everything, lose everything, but [s]he has found the family where the living God resides.”[ii]

The ritual journey we made that night was a pioneering incorporation of installation art into liturgical practice. As Claire Bishop has written, installations, by being ‘theatrical’, ‘immersive’, or ‘experiential’, make the participation of the ‘viewer’ an inherent part of the work:

“… it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space [rather than] a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance … Instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience. This introduces an emphasis on sensory immediacy, on physical participation (the viewer must walk into and around the work), and on a heightened awareness of other visitors who become part of the piece.”[iii]

By disrupting the usual patterns of worship (starting the liturgy facing “backward,” getting out of the pews to explore the building’s “residual” spaces normally unused during worship), and initiating a journey of discovery, we allowed the worshippers to enter the ritual in a more embodied and attentive way. As I wrote at the time, “The one who journeys, discovers, overcomes ordeals and finally attains a center where he or she can dwell [becomes] more aware of what it means to be somewhere, to leave it and arrive somewhere else. “ Even if it is the same place “known for the first time”.

My influences in the design of this worship installation were the biblical Exodus, Dante’s 3-stage journey of Inferno – Purgatorio – Paradiso, and the major Advent theme of endings becoming beginnings. It was all about movement away from, passage through, arrival at … “The James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater,” an experimental work created by Los Angeles’ brilliant Company Theater, also had significant impact on my thinking about ritual experience. In that play, each member of the audience was gently guided by actors through a series of mysterious spaces and multi-sensory experiences.

My conception was also shaped by childhood memories of the funhouse on the pier at Santa Monica’s Ocean Park, where I had loved the harrowing thrill of passing through narrow, zigzagging corridors (some of them totally dark), as the muffled sound of surf leaked through the floorboards. For me, the Advent installation was a kind of “theological funhouse.”

In the 1970’s, installation art was becoming a conscious practice, but I am not sure how early it began to be explored by liturgists. Worship installations are now a staple of alternative worship, but I suspect that what we did at St. John’s in 1972 was pretty rare. This is how I summed it up afterward:

The journey was a dying (baptismal figure, narrowing of space, sounds and images of a yearning world, an unknown way, darkness) and a rising (emergence into an open, “transcendent” space, and being gathered into the community of the eucharist). It was a losing (leaving the original assembly and the main space) and a finding (rediscovering the community and the original space).

In other words, our Exodus had brought us home.

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 274

[ii] Alas, I no longer have the source for this.

[iii] Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005)

Praying the O Antiphons

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Today the O Antiphons begin. Part of the Church’s Advent prayer for at least12 centuries, they employ seven images from the prophet Isaiah to engage us with the names and attributes of the Holy One whose coming (‘Advent’) we await. Originally sung before and after the Magnifcat at Vespers, I find them to be a marvelous way to pray during these final days before Christmas.

There is one antiphon for each day from December 17 to December 23. Copy them on seven slips of paper, and put each day’s antiphon on a mirror, refrigerator, dashboard, screen or bedpost. Carry it with you during the day. Pray it at dawn, noon, sunset and night, in the midst of activity and the midst of quiet, in solitude and in the company of others.

Each antiphon is both greeting and supplication to the God who comes to save us:

O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David,
O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel … O … O … O …

O is such an evocative word. We use it when we come upon something outside ourselves, often unexpected; something that engages us face to face.

  • “O” can be an inhalation, a gasp, the cry of astonishment at the heart of every encounter with the Holy. If our place of prayer were suddenly filled with smoke and angels, or if the Holy called to us out of a burning bush, our first response might well be “O!”
  • There is also the O of understanding, or recognition: O, now I see, now I get it. Or even: O, it’s you!
  • And then there is the ecstatic O, expressing delight, wonder, the sigh of surrender: Ohhhhhhhh!

Each of these is a fitting response when we meet the divine:

Astonishment
Recognition
Surrender

You can find both the original Latin texts and English translations online. The best known paraphrase of the Antiphons is the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” The following are my own variations. Use whatever version suits you best, or write your own.

(Dec. 17)          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.

(Dec. 18)         O Adonai, ruler of time and history, manifestation of divine purpose 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.

(Dec. 19)         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.

(Dec. 20)         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.

(Dec. 21)         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.

(Dec. 22)         O Desire of all nations and peoples, 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.

(Dec. 23)         O Emmanuel, you show us the face of divinity; you reveal the fullness of our humanity. Come: enable us to become who we are.

Advent adventures in worship (Part 1: The Electric Eschaton)

Multimedia liturgy at Greenbelt Festival in 2006

Multimedia liturgy at Greenbelt Festival in 2006

When I engage in worship design, there is usually some kind of balance – or tension – between tradition and innovation. Tradition is valued for its accumulated wisdom, its hard-won knowledge of what works and what is fitting or ‘true.’ Tradition grounds worship in a shared language and culture by which we are deeply formed over time. And the stability of tradition as something familiar and repeated makes it a repository of meaningful associations, memories and feelings for the community.

Innovation is equally valuable, not only as an antidote for rigidity, staleness, and the idolatry of accustomed forms, but also as a welcoming of divine surprise and the freshening winds of the Spirit. Whenever we enter a new environment, our senses go on heightened alert until we get our bearings. We need to pay close attention. You can’t sleepwalk through strange territory. And so it is with innovative worship. As Jesus counseled, it is imperative to ‘stay awake,’ and even slight shifts in the forms and practices of worship can help this happen.

As the liturgical season when the old is judged and found wanting and the new is never quite what anyone expects, Advent seems particularly suited to a disruption of routine and the intrusion of novelty into the worship experience. Unusual texts and music, film clips, drama, choral readings, dance, and generous silences are among the options. I once showed up as John the Baptist, walking barefoot up the aisle of a congregation who (except for the rector who planned this surprise) did not know my face. I shouted about broods of vipers, warned them to repent, and urged them to keep watch for the One who is coming. Then I left as suddenly as I had arrived. Reviews were mixed!

The two most adventurous Advent liturgies I have curated were both a long time ago, when experiment was in the air for both the culture and the church. Whether such experiences now seem merely aberrant curiosities, relics of a vanished past, or pioneering models with continuing resonance for emerging forms of church, others can judge. But if you will indulge me, I would like to read them into the record, for what it’s worth.

The first took place in 1968 at the chapel of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was in my last year of seminary. Every senior was required to preach once to the community, and my turn came in the third week of Advent. Since I was experimenting at the time with both 16mm film and audiotape collage, I decided to do a multi-media sermon, which I called The Electric Eschaton.

1968 was a year of apocalyptic turbulence, so there was no shortage of material for Advent preaching. During the summer and fall I gathered hours of audio from television and radio: news, commercials, fragments of movie dialogue and TV shows, as though they were pieces of a great cultural puzzle that could collectively convey the dynamics of a world in upheaval. There was no Internet for searching and downloading. There weren’t even VCRs. Anything I taped was acquired during live broadcasts, using a cassette recorder with a microphone placed near the television or radio.

As a child I had been fascinated by the random sampling of sounds produced by the continuous slow turning of an AM radio dial late at night. Pulled out of context and juxtaposed with one another by pure chance, these slices of voice, music and static together created their own kind of coherence, both familiar and strange, like utterances from a Delphic oracle or the collective unconscious.

When an old school friend, John White, played me his own experiment with sound collage in June of ‘68, I was hooked by this fascinating art form. I would return to seminary in the fall with a box of tapes to begin the construction of The Electric Eschaton, mixing my collected sounds with bits of rock and roll, hymnody, and poetry recordings. From Wolfman Jack to Humphrey Bogart, Mick Jagger to Soupy Sales, E. E. Cummings to Frank Zappa, The Wizard of Oz to Johnny Guitar, the voices are wildly diverse. And the juxtapositions are often intense. A choir sings “O come, O come, Emmanuel” while a jazz singer screams in anguish. The sounds of police beating demonstrators at the Democratic Convention is accompanied by an ad for “the cleaning breakthrough of the century … with fantastic power to break down and disintegrate dirt and stains.” The collage begins with the blustering of a faux deity, the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz, and ends with a plaintive supplication for deliverance to whoever might be listening (“please don’t be long, please don’t be long”).

You can listen to The Electric Eschaton (20:25) here (headphones recommended):

Is this all just sound and fury, signifying nothing, or as the postmodernists have it, an endless play of signifiers with no final meaning? Some may think so. But to me it was an explicitly theological project, where human longing and divine reality were foundational assumptions, though much of the work was a product of intuition and chance rather than formal design. It felt, like all art (and prayer?), both playful and serious.

Recently I read about a 1951 John Cage performance (“Imaginary Landscape No. 4”) where 12 people each sat by a radio on stage, turning the dials according to a “score” created in advance purely by chance (the throwing of coins). And whatever came out of each radio was in itself a matter of chance. For Cage it was an effort to erase all will and let the combinations of sound happen without his control. In doing so, Cage said, “I saw that all things are related. We don’t have to bring about relationships.”[i] The Electric Eschaton was not as random as Cage’s work, but it perhaps shared with him a sense of pattern underlying the flux of things.

In the laborious assembly of so many fragments, I kept hearing key Advent themes: “I am waiting” … “I can’t reach you” … “what took you so long?” … “it’s so hard loving you” … “so tired, tired of waiting” … “please answer the stupid phone” … “I hear you calling my name” … “here it comes.” A Dantean sense of humanity lost in a dark wood was also pervasive: “my burden is heavy” … “can’t we have something to feel” … “I see a golden calf pointing back at me” … “he could not live much longer with that poison in his system.” And there were echoes of Isaiah in all of it: The people that walked in darkness… What shall I cry? All flesh is grass …. Comfort, comfort my people.

The sermon was performed in a packed chapel at Evening Prayer. There was no one in the pulpit, only a silent, flickering television – a bit of subversive parody, challenging my own apparently absent authority as preacher. Slide and film images were projected on large screens while the sound collage filled the space. When the last strains of “please don’t be long” faded out, the projectors shut down and a jazz drummer began to improvise in total darkness while several female voices shouted out phrases from the liturgy (Lighten our darkness!). After a minute or two of this, drummer and voices ceased, and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the famous theme from the year’s trippiest film, 2001) came on full volume, followed by the joyous ‘na-na-na’ chorus of “Hey Jude.” The chapel lights were switched back on for the Beatles song. Most of the people began to dance and sing in a great spiral. The scheduled benediction and closing hymn seemed superfluous at that point, so the presiding minister just let the dance play out as the liturgical finale.

So what happened that night? The sound collage had been a great Advent cry in the darkness, often painful and stricken. What could a preacher have said at the end to counter the cumulative force of that collage? Beautiful words by one person to a seated congregation would not have sufficed. The divine “answer” had to be nonverbal and eventful: first the Strauss, then the dance. As it turned out, a community united in embodied joy proved unimaginably eloquent. The dance was not a rebuttal of the darkness, locked in the dualism of perpetual combat. It was rather an ecstatic overflow of being that the darkness could never comprehend.

[Part 2 will appear in my next post]

[i] q. in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 175

Ten ways to keep a holy Advent

Camino de Santiago near Atapuerca

Camino de Santiago near Atapuerca

Advent is a time to keep watch for the unexpected comings of God, to prepare our own hearts to make room for the Blessed One, and to be ourselves signs to the world around us of divine compassion and justice.

Here is a list of ten general practices, each with some specific suggestions for the keeping of this holy season.

In a month that is already far too busy and rushed, these are not offered as one more to-do list to work through, but as ways to slow down, take a breath, pay attention, and make room in our lives for the birth of the Holy. These practices do not begin to exhaust the possibilities, but I hope they may stimulate your own thoughtful and prayerful responses. If anything here speaks to you, or prompts your own variation, try it out – for a minute, an hour, a day, and leave the rest to God.

Let every heart prepare him/her room.

1) Interrupting

Breaking the flow of habitual patterns can prompt new kinds of noticing and stimulate awareness. Once a week, or once a day, practice difference, welcome surprise.

Take a route to work/school/errands you have never used before. What do you see?

Take a walk in a place or a time that is not customary, and pay attention, trying to notice details of color, movement, and shape before words and labels start to fill your head.

Wear your watch on the “wrong” wrist, or not at all. Every time you look at the time and feel the interruption of automatic behavior, turn your attention to God’s presence in the here and now.

2) Silencing

Schedule a fixed time each day (between 1 and 10 minutes) for wordless silence in the presence of God.

Unplug yourself from all media one day a week, or at least for an evening. Pay attention to how your soul wants to use that quiet time.

Spend one whole evening during Advent, or at least one hour, in total stillness and silence. Turn everything off, light a candle or a fire, abstain from books and music, stop talking in your head. Listen. Who is knocking at the door of your heart? What does your deepest desire want to tell you?

3) Waiting

Make every experience of waiting in daily life a time of prayerful attention to the hope and desire within you. What are all the things your are waiting for? But what are you really waiting for?

Practice attentive and patient waiting. Sit or lie by a window where you can see only the sky. Wait for something to pass by: a cloud, a plane, a bird, an angel…

Wait for the full moon to rise (tonight). Wait for the first star to appear on Christmas Eve.

4) Listening

When you are out in the world, pause and close your eyes sometimes. What do you hear? Make those sounds the subject of a prayer.

Spend some time each day in a place of stillness where you can listen to your heart, and listen for God.

In conversations with friends, family, spiritual director, or stranger, listen for what wants to be heard.

Spend some time each day with music that awakens your heart and evokes the beauty of holiness for you.

5) Watching

Rise early one morning to watch night turn to day. Fit your prayer to the slow rhythm of dawning.

Pick a day to watch both the sunrise and the sunset, from a viewpoint that is unusual for you.

Notice the faces of strangers. Can you see in them icons of the holy?

Take a photograph of something that catches your prayerful eye. Write an Advent reflection, poem or haiku to go with it, and post on social media.

Watch a film that focuses your attention on the traces of God in our world or in our lives.

6) Praying

For at least part of one day each week, every time you enter a new space or begin a new activity, say this prayer: “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.”

Four times a day (rising, midday, evening, bedtime), face the horizon and pray, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.”

Four times a day (rising, midday, evening, bedtime) say the Collect-prayer for the week from the Sunday liturgy.

Cultivate a daily prayer practice, at a set time if possible, and keep it faithfully, even when (or especially when) you are pressed or distracted.

7) Reflecting

Select a book for daily spiritual reading. Don’t skip a single day.

Meditate on the daily readings for Advent (Year 2) provided in lectionaries, Advent books, or online sources.

Journal at least a few times each week. Try beginning with “I am waiting for…” or “I am longing for…” and write what comes to mind.

8) Loving

Visit the sick, the lonely, the sad, the prisoner.

Practice random acts of kindness. Pray that you may be a sign of Christ to everyone you meet.

Pray every day for the person who is hardest for you.

Whenever you are in public space, spend some time praying for everyone you see around you.

For one day, or at least one hour, make a conscious act of seeing Christ in every face.

9) Giving

Do an act of volunteering which you have never done before.
Do something to make more justice and peace.
Send money to a good cause.
Take something to a food bank.

Make a change in your own way of living that will be a vote for “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Pick one social concern that engages your energetic attention, and pray every day that God’s will be done. You don’t have to list possible solutions – they are usually beyond our own imagining. Just entrust the object of your concern to God’s mercy and God’s imagination.

Give yourself to deep conversation with family and friends about the Advent season, the feelings it brings, the action it inspires.

10) Receiving

Pay attention.
Stay awake.
Be ready.

Open the door of your heart
to welcome
the Stranger who knows you by heart.

The World’s End

The World's End

When I was 8 years old, I read in LIFE magazine that in so many millions of years, the sun would burn out and life on earth would cease. This worried me, so I asked my parents, “If the world is going to end, how come we say “world without end” when we pray?” And they told me what the Bible says, that heaven and earth may pass away, but God remains. That relieved some of my anxiety, but I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the world ending, even if God was in charge.

Of course the world ends all the time. When I moved from California to Puget Sound in the 1990’s, my first Northwest winter felt like today’s gospel: the sun was darkened and the moon gave no light.

Who among us has not seen their world end? Adolescents exiled from childhood. Black teenagers robbed of their future. Elders deprived of their health. Unemployment …retirement …divorce … the death of a parent, a spouse, a child — in every one of these, a world comes to an end.

For anyone who has known serious loss, this is more than metaphor. The experience of grief can be so total and unrelenting that you can’t see anything beyond it. You can’t imagine the future. It feels like the end of the world.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. [i]

W.H. Auden was invoking apocalyptic metaphors to express personal loss, but shared, public worlds also come to an end. As in 1789, or 1914. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. 9/11. My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

But why bring up such dreary stuff on this first day of the new Christian year? Shouldn’t we be breaking out the party hats, blowing horns and shouting “Happy New Year?” The wisdom of the Advent season is that it never begins with “A Holy Trinity Production,” or “The Creator of the World Presents.” No, it always opens with “The End.” Advent knows that every beginning involves some kind of ending. In this season’s Scripture, preaching and prayers, the present arrangements of collective and personal life are judged and found wanting. God’s imagination is far too rich and fertile to settle for our barren and diminished versions of human possibility.

Selfishness, greed, consumerism? Fear, racism and violence? Poverty, militarism, war, environmental degradation? That’s the best we can do? Really? God must be saying, “Come on, people. I made you a little lower than the angels, and this is what you came up with?”

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” But to get to that “might have been” requires an Exodus into the wilderness beyond the way things are; an Exodus beyond even the best we can imagine for ourselves, into a place of unknowing, where only God possesses the language to speak our future into being.

So much of what we hear and pray and sing in Advent is profoundly disruptive. Bob Franke’s great Advent song, “Stir up your power,” gets right to it in the first line: This world may no longer stand. We are meant to be unsettled, to be driven beyond our narrow boundaries, our constricted realities, toward a beckoning horizon. The Christian life is a perpetual series of departures for a better place.

The world as it is – the world of racial hatred and toxic violence and economic injustice and perpetual war and addictive consumerism and pollution for profit and all the other evils which poison our common life – this world has no future in the emergent Kingdom of God. This world may no longer stand.

But the story doesn’t stop there. In my end is my beginning.[ii] Even when we have gone far astray, even when our story seems over, God remains deeply present in the processes of creation, tenderly leading and luring us into newness of life, making a way where there is no way, opening doors that none can shut.

Advent people do not just wring their hands or shake their heads over the latest news from Ferguson or the Middle East. We work and pray for something better. What we can do on our own is limited, but when we offer our priorities and energies to the larger purposes of God, Love will have its way with us.

As the Christian mystic Hadewijch put it in the thirteenth century:

Since I gave myself to Love’s service,
Whether I lose or win,
I am resolved:
I will always give her thanks,
Whether I lose or win;
I will stand in her power. [iii]

It is not always easy to stand in Love’s power and keep the faith. In some situations it is almost unimaginable. Forty years ago the African-American author James Baldwin wrote:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. [iv]

This passionate mixture of protest and love sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets who permeate our Advent lectionary. The very first reading of the season begins with a prophetic plea for history to be broken open by divine justice:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …
to make your name known to those who resist you,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! [v]

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting. It is also a time of protest and vision. Advent announces an insurgency against the way things are, a revolution to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, raise the lowly, gather the lost, free the captive, and bind up the brokenhearted. Advent re-imagines the world as paradise restored, a new heaven and new earth suffused with the peace of God.

this is the day of broken sky
this is the space of conflagration-breath
speaking border-trespass
this is the feathered swoop of heaven
on the wing of now …
forking lightning into language …
breaking god into prison …
breaking the truth from jail! …

This is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
spitting flames of reconciliation
in the sky of war
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head
like becoming what you never dared
for the first time and forever

This ecstatic prophecy is from a poem by Jim Perkinson. [vi] He was talking about Pentecost, but his theme fits Advent as well:

“the day of broken sky”
the earth in conflagration
God breaking into the prisons
the truth being set loose at last
and “the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!”

And each of us, all of us, becoming what we never dared.

When Jesus tells us to stay awake, he is warning us not to sleep through the day of God’s coming. Stay alert. Pay attention. Don’t miss it! Become what you never dared. Shake off the sleep of complacency, the sleep of complicity, the sleep of despair. Awake and greet the new dawn.

Jan Richardson describes this dawning reality in her beautiful poem, “Drawing Near.” [vii]

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see…

Richardson accurately expresses the sense of distant horizon that prevents the dominant reality of the moment from closing in on us and locking us in. That reality wants to be believed as fixed and final, permanent and stable. But the horizon calls every finality into question, disrupting its stability with the boundlessness of divine possibility. The horizon draws our attention from what is given to what may yet be. Keeping our eye on the horizon, feeling its pull, is the spiritual practice of Advent. Richardson’s poem expresses the deep longing produced by the distance between the already and the not-yet.

And then the poet discovers what every pilgrim knows: the goal of our long journey is something that has already been inscribed deep within us even before our journey began. Even before the day we were born, we were marked as God’s own forever.

And that is where Advent ultimately leaves us – finding that the thing we have been seeking so long has been with us all the time – within us, and all around us. While we have been walking our Camino to the Promised land, our feet have already been on holy ground, every step of the way. And the God of the far horizon turns out to be the path as well, keeping us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.

So when Advent people talk about the end of the world, we are speaking about end in the sense of purpose rather than termination. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the apocalypse in our future will not be an annihilation, but a revealing of the world’s ultimate purpose and destiny.

Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.

This Advent faith is expressed memorably in a short story by British writer Carol Lake, “The Day of Judgment.” On the Last Day of the world, God sails into England aboard a new Ark. But instead of bringing history to a close and pronouncing judgment on everyone, God leaves the Ark to enter the city of Derby. Heading for the run-down inner city neighborhood of Rosehill, he joins the crowd at a local pub, a multi-ethnic mix of the working poor and the unemployed. And there God gets so caught up in being with these people that he loses track of time, and the Ark sails away without him, heading off for the horizon of eternity. As the story describes it:

The Ark is on the edge of the horizon now, its destination the heartlessness of perfection. Most of the inmates already know what they are going to find – endless fruit, endless harmony, endless entropy, endless endless compassion, black and white in endless inane tableaux of equality. It sails off to a perfect world; the sky has turned into rich primary colors and in the distance the Ark bobs about on a bright blue sea.” [viii]

Meanwhile, God is still in that Rosehill pub, in the very heart of imperfection. If you had walked in there, you would have had a hard time picking him out. He blended right in. But if you were paying attention, you might notice that there was now something different about Rosehill. The old non-descript streets and dilapidated buildings had taken on a strange beauty. Maybe it was the warm slant of afternoon light, but people were beginning to see their neighborhood in a new way. And their own faces, too, seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as if they were carrying a wonderful secret, tacitly shared with everyone around them, as if they suddenly knew there was more to life than meets the eye.

They were still poor, the world was still a mess, but something new was in the air, a spirit of change was awakening. And from that day on, the people of Rosehill found themselves becoming what they’d never dared, for the first time and forever.

[i] W.H. Auden, “Twelve Songs (ix)”, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Random House, 1976), 120

[ii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1974), 191

[iii] Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 213

[iv] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (NY: Dell, 1972), 194

[v] Isaiah 64:1-2

[vi] Jim Perkinson, “tongues-talk,” q. in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 157-8

[vii] Jan Richardson, “Drawing Near” (http://adventdoor.com/2012/11/25/advent-1-drawing-near)

[viii] Carol Lake, Rosehill: Portraits from a Midlands City (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 119