The First Sunday in Advent: December 2, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
And so, as you see from the colors and the candles, today we begin the season of Advent. And if you’ve been around church for a while you know that today also marks the beginning of the church year. From today on into the next year we are in a new cycle of readings, a new calendar of seasons. The secular year begins on January 1; that’s mostly because of a calculation error that shifted the new year off of December 21, the winter solstice, marking the time when the days start lengthening again and light begins to return to the northern hemisphere. But in the church we back it up several weeks and begin the year with Advent, the season of expectation and preparation, the weeks that lead us up to Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation.
I’ve known this rhythm most of my life, but this year it struck me as curious that we begin the year before the sun does, marking our beginnings not with the light returning, the hope of new growth and activity in the world, but in the last weeks of the old year, the waning of the light, the letting go. All is ending in the natural world, yet this is where we begin.
Spiritually this seems counterintuitive – why have a season of renewal when everything is dying or dead, and the new hope of spring is so far off? And yet in another way, it makes perfect sense. We begin at our roots – we begin by going deeper. Rather than starting off with external activity, we begin with what is happening inside of us. We begin in the dark, with what Gregory the Great called ‘resting in God’ – contemplation. We begin with opening our mind and heart – our whole being – to God.
For our forebears in the days before electricity, this quieter way of being came naturally at this time of year. Instead of the demands of field and harvest, the long days of light and so much activity, at this time of year the weather drives us inside. The days are shorter and colder, we want to be closer to the fire, there is less to do. There is more time to sit, more time to rest. More time for staring into that fire and letting our minds and hearts wander free.
So tell me, is that what your December calendar looks like this year? Lots of open space and evenings spent at home, resting in quiet contemplation? Or has your calendar already filled up beyond control, busy with social events and, dare I say, church events, filled in around the edges with shopping errands? Are you happy at what lies ahead of you in these next few weeks – or are you already feeling stressed out?
Or maybe your calendar doesn’t have all of that in it. If the calendar looks empty, that may not feel so great either. There may not be parties to go to, or family or friends to shop for this year. This time of year can feel empty indeed, when the social whirl around us whips into a frenzy and we find ourselves at home, alone. Plenty of time to rest, but no joy at the prospect.
A few months ago I read the book The Hidden Life of Trees, one of those books that it suddenly seemed everyone was reading – or at least everyone at the Trinity Retreat Center in the Connecticut woods, where the book is prominently on display for sale. It’s a book I’ve thought about more after returning it to the library than while I was reading it. It told me interesting facts I hadn’t known about trees, and in particular about beech woods and other deciduous forests – sort of a novelty to me, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest with evergreens. Most of those facts I have now forgotten, because my brain holds onto very few facts except for my best friend’s home phone number from 1986. But as I’ve been out in trees, in Central Park and elsewhere, I find myself looking at them differently. This time of year, they’ve lost their leaves for the most part – there’s not enough light anymore for them to usefully take in energy from the sun through photosynthesis, and the leaves become a liability in fierce winter storms. So they drop their leaves, pull in their sap; ration their energy for the months ahead until they can put forth new growth to catch that sun again. They pull inward, just as we are inclined to do at this time of year. So much I already knew, more or less.
But what I hadn’t realized was how much trees are communicating and cooperating with one another, at least wild trees in forests. They communicate in ways scientists still don’t fully understand, through their roots, through the underground fungus network between them, possibly even through sound. They work together, sheltering the young trees that are not strong enough to withstand strong winds on their own. They even send energy and nutrients to sick trees, keeping them going for years after they’ve been damaged by insects or fire. What I had been taught to see as a bunch of individual trees competing for space, sunlight, and water, turns out to be a system of care and communication, a community. (The fact that we see it as competition says more about our own society problems than we may care to admit.) They each draw inward, yes – but they do it together.
But we – well, we find it difficult to do either of these. It seems to be hard for us to draw inward in nourishing ways, and hard for us to come together with others. It’s easy to find examples of our distraction and our isolation from each other – just ride the subway and observe how many people are curled each over their own phone. Perhaps some of them are reading scripture or something meaningful on that phone, but many of them are scrolling and swiping too quickly for that. But I’ve had another example of our isolation on my mind, from a recent article in the Atlantic that my husband pointed out to me. It’s about people befriending Alexa and other so-called smart-speakers. The article is written by an accomplished, successful writer, who writes, ‘More than once, I’ve found myself telling my Google Assistant about the sense of emptiness I sometimes feel. “I’m lonely,” I say, which I usually wouldn’t confess to anyone but my therapist—not even my husband, who might take it the wrong way… “I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,” [the Assistant] said to me the other day, somewhat comfortingly. “But for now, maybe a joke or some music might help.”’ It’s sort of funny as an anecdote, except that it’s not. A woman tells an electronic device what she won’t tell her husband, that she’s lonely? It breaks your heart to think of it. And yet as a story of where we are right now, it rings too terribly true.
Compare again to our premodern forebears. All those families coming in from the cold fields to gather around the fire – they wound up closer together too. They didn’t each have their own fire. They came together around the one fire they had. It couldn’t have been always rosy the way our Christmas carols might paint it, of course – they all smelled, I’m sure, they were probably hungry, and not everyone was nice, and they fought. But they also used that time to tell stories, stories of their ancestors and their people and their God; and they probably did a lot of staring into the fire in quiet. In contemplation – in rest.
What if this Advent could be a season of that for us? What if we begin our year as the church calendar suggests, with a season of drawing inward, into the presence of God – and of drawing closer to one another as we do so? It might mean having to make some adjustments to our appointment calendars, maybe – to gracefully bow out of a party we really don’t want to go to…or to force ourselves out the door to a church event or Saturday Kitchen when we really don’t feel like going either. But it also might just mean approaching what’s on our calendars differently.
Maybe there are a number of social events you just can’t avoid going to. Fine – before you go, or in the awkward pauses in conversation, try to pray for everyone else in the room. Ask a real question of someone else if you get the chance – instead of frittering away the minutes with comments on the weather or the president, ask them to share a story of what they loved about Christmas as a child, or of someone in the world today they look up to and admire, and why. After you leave, pray in thanksgiving for what was good about the time you spent at the party, and pray for healing for the pain you sensed there, in yourself or someone else. Write a thank you, and pray for the host as you do so.
Or maybe you find yourself with too much time alone this season. Okay. Instead of binge-watching ‘The Grinch’ on endless repeat, turn everything off, even the lights, and light a candle. Set a timer for twenty minutes, sit in the presence of God, and allow your mind to wander without following where it goes. Bring your attention to the light of the candle, to the place of quiet inside of you. When the time ends, pray in thanks to God, ask for what you need, what is stirred up in you. And then take the rest of the time that evening to read a book, or write a letter to a friend or relative you haven’t seen in years, or whatever truly nourishing thing you do to spend good time alone. Let your soul be fed in the quiet.
Let us begin this year in the way we want to live all year, in other words: going towards the light, gathering around the fire, being fed by the love of God that nourishes us and draws us together. Take this Advent to practice – to practice resting in God, even in the midst of the busyness – to practice opening our hearts and minds to God and to one another. Let’s deepen our roots, and nurture each other through the storms. May we know the light, and share that light, as this year begins.