Part One: Making Room
As you can see from the way we’ve set up the sanctuary, things are a bit different. A little off-center. Given the time of year, perhaps that’s appropriate. Because I’m uncomfortable. My personal bubble of comfort and complacency has been pierced over and over again this year. With politics as not-quite-usual, with the challenges of climate change, with calls for justice from the #metoo movement and the #blacklivesmatter movement and for #immigrantjustice movement, I’ve spent a good deal of this past year reeling. Uncertain. Off-balance. Not knowing what’s coming next. Maybe some of you feel the same way. And that’s why we’re off-center, today. To take at least this moment to acknowledge our discomfort and our uncertainty about what is to come. To sit, quite literally, in it.
Welcome to Advent.
Those of us from Christian traditions may recall that Advent is often called a time of waiting. If you ask my children, it’s the time of “waiting for Christmas presents”. I cringe, a bit, at that thought – but I was no different. Growing up at Cedar Lane UU Church down in Bethesda, my primary “church memory” from this time of year was the annual Christmastime story told by our minister, the Rev. Ken Maclean. Rev. Maclean, according to legend, learned the fine art of helicopter piloting from a nephew of Santa Claus. Over the years, I learned from Rev. Maclean all about the perils of poor handwriting, the fine art of soot removal, and the many things you can hide under a heavy coat. It’s the laughter I remember best. A community bound together by laughter; my mother laughing so hard she cried. That’s a good memory.
According to author Kurt Vonnegut, laughter and tears are equally valid responses to the world we live in, but that laughter needs less cleaning up. But where they both spring from, I’ve heard, is in the gap between expectation and reality. The tension before the reveal.
For the Christian tradition, if Christmas is the big reveal, then Advent is the tension. The setup. The time when we’re led somewhere. For Christians, this tension resolved itself in the surprising and unexpected birth of Jesus, a gift that completely changed humanity’s relationship to the holy, the divine, the ultimate. In this case, I guess you could say things worked out pretty well, all in all.
But what about for us, today? Once again, we are to “make ready”. But make ready for what?
I think that Advent asks us to set aside our preconceptions and specific expectations, as if we’re going on a journey and we need to travel light. As if at any moment we may be called to rise up and follow. We need make room. In ourselves. In our world. Room for that something new.
And that vagueness and uncertainty is a little uncomfortable, isn’t it? But this is precisely the Advent challenge – for there is no resolution for us. Not yet. For answers, we have to wait. With hope, yes, but not with certainty. How will we do it?
The key, according to Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, may be in repentance. That’s a loaded word for some of us, so following her example, I’d like to do a bit of “reclaiming”. The word, ‘repent’, comes from a Latin word, paene, which means “missing, lacking”. We could say that to re-pent is to get rid of something we’ve picked up, to “become empty again”.
Perhaps that is the most helpful way to approach this Advent season. We can ask, what is taking up space – in my head, my heart, my life — and holding me back? What terrible story about myself, my past, my future, my family, my job have I let take over and squeeze out all the space and joy? Can I let that go? Can I let some of it go? Can I repent and make space for something new, something that may be surprising, something amazing, something that we might even be tempted to call “divine”?
Part Two: Beginning in Darkness
One of the joys of being involved in the life of a child, either your own or one orbiting a friend or relative – is passing on the novels that we grew up on. Or maybe “inflicting those stories on them” is a better way to put it, because those stories don’t always hold up to memory, do they? C’est la vie.
One of my current … experiments … is the Wheel of Time novels, by Robert Jordan. Any fans? Don’t’ worry – Amazon is currently making it into a TV series. The Wheel of Time, at least in the old novel-format, is a sprawling fantasy epic, and probably best known for exactly that – the sprawl. Over seventeen years, Jordan published fourteen novels in what was supposed to be a 6-part series. Perhaps most frustrating of all, the final book was never written because the author died. For us fans, this was a catastrophe of, well, epic proportions! But the Wheel of Time series was finally finished – a pinch hitter stepped in, luckily, and did a bang-up job bringing the epic to a close. But I wonder what it would have been like if it hadn’t been completed. Would that really have been that bad? As Jordan himself said — in fact, as he opened every one of his novels by saying that “[this particular] beginning was not the beginning … but it was a beginning.”
Life, like story, like passing a flame from one candle to the next, each an opportunity, each a link in an endless chain of new beginnings.
Two thousand years ago, the Gnostic tradition taught much the same thing — that the meaning of life was something you acquired, from teacher to student. That knowledge was secret, some hidden truth, and receiving that truth – owning it, accepting it, and tending it – meant that you were different from everyone else on Earth. Those other people? They were “in the dark.” But you were special. You were “enlightened”. Enlightened – to shed light on, to make luminous — you were said to hold the spark of life, the flame of truth. Some believed that it was the spark itself that was the truest and most real part of you. As if your whole life – as if all life on Earth – up to that moment was lost to ignorance, to the darkness, to the night, but suddenly, here was the dawn. A truth hidden within, suddenly revealed. A new beginning.
The last book in the New Testament is sometimes called “The Apocalypse of John”. This isn’t very common, partly because the word ‘apocalypse’ now tends to mean “complete catastrophe” if not “the end of the world”, and while colorful and very Hollywood, ‘apocalypse’ is very different from ‘eschaton’ – the Greek word for “the end times”. No, ‘Apocalypse’ means, simply, “an act of uncovering”, a “revealing”, almost as if it were the final step in a magic trick. Et Voilà! Behold the mystery! And this is why most current Bibles now label that book “Revelations”.
We can, I think, see our time as a time of apocalypse. We have this sense, listening to the news, that there are a great many sad and terrible things suddenly appearing before us like magic. Expressions of racism, sexism, fascism. None of these things are new. What feels new is that we’re suddenly, finally, continuously, being asked to see them. And when we do, we are right to ask if perhaps they’ve been there all along.
This is not exactly comforting news.
Or is it?
What if that is exactly backwards? What if we made room for the idea that shining a light into the shadows that lurk around the corners of our society is not us “suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, and something to fear or lament, but instead, that revealing is precisely us “taking arms against our sea of troubles, and by opposing end them”? I like that thought.
I suppose that the Prince of Denmark might have said that it is, sometimes, difficult to see beyond the night, to imagine our current affairs as anything other than an ending drawing close, like a cold draft hinting at Winter snow. That may be a bit overdrawn, but the point is simple: in the dark, it’s hard to imagine the dawn.
The fact is, the particular dawn we’re hoping for may not be the one we get to see. Switching analogies, we may not get to write the final novels of the drama we currently find ourselves in. But those children, the ones we’ve passed our stories to, they might.
I believe that there will, one day, be a dawn lit by countless points of light. Because I like to imagine that more and more of us are – even now — passing the candle around, illuminating and enlightening and setting each other ablaze, throwing back the shadows and, yes, even revealing the truths we’ve been too busy, too uneasy, too queasy, to see.
Dawn is still coming. For us travelers, called to rise and follow, the sun is what we’ve come to see. And while dawn is not the beginning, it is a beginning.
Part Three: The Ribbon of Hope
[Needed: Four helpers. Worship Associate stands at head of congregation, holding two ribbons. One end of one roll passes to pulpit. Both rolls passed to helpers in front, one per side of the aisle. Helpers for rear take their rolls to the rear corners of the congregation. All begin passing the ribbons from one congregant to the next, toward the middle. Accompanist should softly play the music for the next hymn while the passing is done.]
The ribbon of hope is not usually this tangible, this explicit, or this brilliant a shade of Advent purple. As you pass and hold on to this ribbon, look to the left. Look to the right. See who else is holding on to your ribbon.
Some of these faces we know. Some we have known for years. Some are the faces of those we will come to know. Some we will never see again. Let us be comforted in the knowledge that, whatever road those faces end up traveling, and whatever road they have already traveled, let us give thanks that they are here, now.
The ribbon in your hand symbolizes a truth. In one sense, it is a path – a winding, circuitous journey that each of us takes through life, touching and touched by the many lives of our friends and neighbors. In another sense, it is a web – a web of radical interconnection, but also a net that holds us when we fall and a container that can hold our joys and sorrows. Instead of a boundary, it is a moving thing, like a snake, it has no defined shape. Perhaps you can also see it as a lifeline, a tie, a binding.
Religare is the root of the Latin word religio, where we get the English word ‘religion’. The first part is ligare, which means “to bind”, and this is where we get the English words ‘ligament’ and ‘alliance’ and ‘obligation’. The prefix “RE-” usually means “this time with feeling”, or, “again”, so religare means “to bind again”.
I like this because it suggests choice. That we, whoever we were, as Unitarian Universalists we can choose to come together, to bind ourselves together, again. Not as individuals. But as a group. A community.
This ribbon is a community. Whatever it is that brought you here, being here is a choice. A voluntary one. A choice of conscience, maybe, or of taste. But that’s important is that we are all linked here. We may screw it up. That’s a given – we’re nothing if not human! But even then, we can choose to bind ourselves together, again. And again.
The truth is, we share something, all of us. Something fundamental: We are born. We will die. And in between, we will struggle and suffer. But there is another truth – one that you can see by looking around at the hands that hold the same ribbon you are holding – and that truth is that we do not have to go through it alone. We make each other better. We make ourselves better, together. Religare. To bind up, again. With a ribbon of hope.