In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first of those coming days where we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s human birth at Christmas. Today is also the start of the next church year, you know that grand circle of time that begins in Advent leads to Christmas, and then moves on to Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost much like the months of the year. Looking at that circle, I can see asking why do this at all? We’ve all done this before. In fact, we do it every year. We know what is going to happen next. Is there anything new to learn?
American culture isn’t fond of thinking of time as a circle. We Americans are taught to think of time more like a horizontal line that travels ever forward. (Isn’t the timeline what you learned in school?). We are surprised over and over again when the old world reasserts itself and we find ourselves caught up in some very resistant ancient circle. One of the most frustrating and dispiriting things about this year’s global pandemic is that we don’t feel like we’re making progress in any number of things we care about. As powerful as we are, when it comes to ancient problems like pandemics, we can feel like we are out of our depth. Perhaps it would be better in such instances if we were familiar with spiritual technologies that we didn’t invent, but are older than our country because they were developed precisely for dealing with really hard, longstanding problems, problems that refuse to fall into the line.
I also wonder how well the ever-forward, American vision of the timeline, applies to the life of the human spirit. Are the afflictions of the soul fixable by American know-how? Is the heart that easily brought into line? The most serious emotions tend to move in waves and circles. Ask anyone who has experience deep grief or great love. They rarely follow a straight line. To force them to do that is to make us less human. The lessons that mean the most to the heart are the ones that it seeks to repeat and revisit over and over again. The heart circles around and around to them.
The Christianities invented in America have tended to discard our ancient liturgical calendar of circular time (except for Christmas and Easter). If you are in a church like this one, however, and you are being encouraged during the darkest coldest month of the year to gather together, and create a circle out of candles, light fire, while chanting an incantation, you are in a church with a very long memory. You are in a church that not only is open to new technologies, but also has not forgotten the wisdom of generations about what the human heart most needs. This is a Christianity designed for deep-seated problems that will not easily be found to be out of its depth.
For example, every year at this time one of the ancient developers of our faith, the prophet Isaiah, is brought before us to connect with heart to heart as a fellow traveller. The ancient prophet Isaiah lived in times where he witnessed great dislocation of peoples and distress. In our passage today, a weary Isaiah speaks for humanity after he had witnessed so much tragedy, so many insolvable problems, with so much of it being simply incomprehensible. Isaiah is left with nothing more forceful than this pleading prayer: “Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.”
Faced with the limit of what he thought at the time was human progress, what Israel could accomplish, Isaiah struggled with the vast difference between God and himself. Before this God even great nations tremble, for in God’s presence they are powerless. He tells us of a God who is eternal, yet, according to Isaiah, we human beings fade like the autumn leaves and blow away. (I can see him looking out at his yard this time of year thinking I am like those leaves). In the world where he lives, where we live, Isaiah says it feels like God has “hidden” his “face from us” and is not to be found. What in that powerless moment does Isaiah offer us year after year? Notice that it is also this same Isaiah, who in all that, is the one who proclaims to us, “For a child has been born for us … and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). Isaiah gives voice to human despair while reminding us to be stubborn in our hope, again and again, year after year. The ancient prophet presents us with a spiritual practice that helps us to see our world for what it is, supplies direction to our untargeted emotions, and is a source of comfort.
As you all know all too well, we are now turning a corner in our seasonal year where every day, for a while, will only be darker and colder than the previous one. Many people deeply feel the absence of light during the cold winter months. It has been like this for as long as human beings can remember. There is something powerful and important in how our tradition tells us that that very experience of darkness is the time to look most purposely for the light. That the deepest darkness is not the occasion for despair or resignation, what it means is that Christ is about to be born! As the days become shorter and shorter, the darkness grows, you and I, as observers of Advent, are to be like the three wise men search for any kind of light we can find in the nighttime sky. There is a spirit of protest and stubborn hope in this holiday that refuses to let the ever-expanding darkness win. It turns out that this practice is what the heart needs.
The key element is that it is repetitive. I’m not sure why we tend to see the value of repetition as somewhat childish. It is why children are good at learning things. This is how children learn how to write, or to speak a foreign language, or play a musical instrument or sport, but when it comes to adult religion it is not what we expect. Take for example, that young person seeking to master a musical instrument. The only way to learn it is to practice, practice, practice. Those who become the most expert are not necessarily the most talented, they are the ones who managed the repetition best, those who played the same scale over and over and over again, the ones who did this so much that they were shaped and changed by their instrument.
There is much talk about adult brains not being as adept at learning new things, but most of the time what afflicts adult learning the most is the lack of time for practice and repetition. Any serious skill you have, you probably have put at least a thousand hours into it. The many generations of Christians who have instructed us to live our time as a yearly circle of specific spiritual practices, knew that human hearts are best cared for through repetition, regular predictable practices that develop in them the skills they need.
This Advent we, thereby, begin again, believing that every year is its own beginning and is not determined necessarily by what happened on the horizontal line before it. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to walking the circle of liturgical time, you never go through it the same way twice. We are a year older and so travel a path that we have walked before, but not as the people that we are today. We give ourselves to the practices of meditative reading, listening, singing, giving, praying, sharing bread and wine as a way of learning what we need to know now and re-learning what we have forgotten. Such a circular discipline is a gentler cure than some of its newer competitors, because it is a lifetime therapy that takes you by the hand and leads you step by step. Rather than bringing about a direct confrontation with Isaiah God’s, it leads there indirectly, step by step gradually.
The Church’s call to observe a holy Advent is a call to preserve its stubborn hope in the cold darkness and teach our hearts to expect to see and feel the warmth of Christ’s light. As we commit ourselves to a season preparing our hearts for Christmas, we are called to focus our minds upon Christ, that single point of light in the night sky that the darkness can never overcome. Our new Advent Wreath in our church and the ones that will soon populate many of our homes, remind us by their small, but ever increasing light that the darkness will not win. If at any time the darkness is feeling especially dark to you, connect with All Saints’ and share in our spiritual practice. The darker it is outside, the brighter it will be with us as we light one candle after another.
This Advent let us be people that keep lighting candles in the darkness and not be afraid of beginning again as we devote ourselves anew to the Hope of Advent. Let us turn our hearts and minds toward that single point of light in the night sky that the darkness can never overcome and be changed for the better.
May the Almighty God, who is indeed like a consuming fire, in whose presence even the mountains quake, be with us this Advent in our spiritual practices, scatter the darkness before and us, and strengthen us with the light of his blessing. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet