First Sunday of Advent
We finally took part in the experience of watching the Macy’s parade on Thursday. My friend Ann Kansfield, who preached here earlier this year, is a chaplain with the Fire Department, and because of that, she was able to invite friends along to a prime viewing location along Bryant Park. I’ve never watched the parade before, but there we were, hot chocolates in hand, cheering the high school bands and wondering who the celebrities were (well, the teens knew, but the rest of us were clueless). It was a beautiful day, and ok, it was pretty dang fun – one of those times big city NYC turns into kind of a small town. And as you all know, the parade, which begins with fall leaves and turkeys, reaches its pinnacle at the very end, when Santa and all the Christmas performers make their way to Macy’s on 34th Street. Enough with the Thanksgiving spirit, here come the real holidays, and Santa is here to bring you everything you want, which you can buy at Macy’s!
Ready or not, here we are: Santa is installed at Santaland and the holidays have begun.
So in response to all of this, we’ve built in a little more Advent to the worship. In the place of one of the readings, we gave you…quiet. You’re welcome. We’ll offer this the next few Sundays as well, with a reflection question and prompts for how to use the time – but you can also just sit there and close your eyes. We all need this kind of time, even just 3 minutes. Maybe you can try adding in something like this for your every day.
The season of Advent is the season of preparation, of waiting and longing for God to be with us, to come to be one of us at Christmas. But of course God already has come to be one with us, and always is one with us, even as we can often feel like we’re still waiting. The seasons of the church year express different aspects of our spiritual lives that are always true, but it’s like we hold up different aspects for focus and intent at certain times of the year – spiritual growth, penitence, the experience of resurrection, the light of God, and so on, all parts of our lives always, but highlighted in the church at certain times of the year. So too, Advent, the season of waiting, is the season we’re always in really. We are always longing for God; we don’t always feel like we have found God.
I’ve been listening to a podcast with the writer and teacher James Finley, about the mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian was an anchoress, a solitary who lived in the 14th century in Norwich, England. She was led to this life commitment by a profound vision she had as a young woman, when she was on what she thought was her deathbed from a serious illness. The priest came to give her last rites and held up the crucifix before her, and as she gazed on the face of Jesus, she had a powerful experience of Jesus’ suffering and redemptive love – so powerful that when she recovered from this illness, she devoted the rest of her life to writing and meditating on this vision, and counseling others in their spiritual path.
In her work, Julian writes about her vision, which she called ‘Showings,’ and then writes, “I wanted to see more. I was answered in my reason, if God wishes to show you more, God will be your light. You need none but him. For I saw him and I sought him.” “I had him, and I lacked him.”
With these words, Julian names one of the basic truths of the spiritual life. We have some experience, some moment, when we get a glimpse of God – perhaps when we’re a small child, maybe in a time of prayer. But it also might come in a situation where we don’t think of it as God, when a piece of music overcomes us, or our breath catches a little at the sunset, or we find ourselves tearing up in conversation with a trusted friend. And maybe it’s only later that we come to call it God, this inner awakening, this feeling of God. But it doesn’t stay, this feeling, and we want to feel it again – so we embark on the spiritual path. We saw God, we caught a glimpse, and then God wasn’t right there anymore. So we start seeking after God. We have God, we grasp God all in a moment, and then the next minute, we realize we don’t have God at all. We long for God, and we have to live in that longing.
So here we are today, gathered together in our longing. This time of year is an easy time to get distracted by other things – the busyness of the holidays, the demands of the job at year-end, the family drama, the money woes. And we are so often easily distracted from our longing. We try to seek to plug the gap with other things besides God – anesthetizing ourselves with drugs or alcohol or food, turning our spiritual desire into unhappy romance, subverting our desire for spiritual growth into professional ambition. But just as the holidays provide all kinds of ways to distract ourselves, they also seem to bring us reality checks, as we see that our lives don’t stack up to the ideal visions around us. The pictures and images of this season show people at peace with one another, in warm and loving families, surrounded by an abundance of good things. When we are in strife with our loved ones, or living alone or in poverty, or dealing with trauma, those images can show us all too starkly how far we are from our ideal. Just as the church season of Advent highlights the waiting and longing that are always part of our spirits, so too the secular holiday season highlights all the ways we try to avoid it. No wonder everything feels so keyed up this time of year. We feel our longing even more acutely, even while everything around us tries to pretend that longing isn’t there.
But Julian’s words also include the deeply comforting idea that as we seek God, we can trust that we are exactly where we should be: ‘I wanted to see more. I was answered in my reason, if God wishes to show you more, God will be your light.’ As James Finley words it, ‘God’s presence is completely given to you. And the love of God’s given to you completely as where you are, not where you think you’re supposed to be. And when you do see more, God will be the light in which you will see more.’
In other words, whether we see God or don’t see God, whether we feel God’s presence or don’t, God is completely present and completely loving us in that moment. It doesn’t depend on us getting it right, as if only when we pray correctly or get more religious will God show up for us. God’s love is pure grace, right here and now. We keep seeking, and God shows us more and more, in God’s good time. Every year we come around again to the season of waiting and anticipation; every year we come further and further into the mystery of God’s love for us. And we don’t have to do anything at all to receive it.
So welcome to Advent, again. Welcome to the time where the conditions around us get especially in our way on the spiritual path; welcome to the time when the conditions around us put us even more firmly on that path. Both are true. So take a little quiet where you can find it. And may this time be holy for you – holy in your longing, holy in the emptiness, holy in the wisps of joy that point us toward God. God loves you now and always. Always.