“… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” Romans 13:11-12
When the first spell of wintery weather hit last week, I instinctively plugged in the new lawn ornament we purchased for display during the holiday season. Normally, we wait until later in December to light it all up. But with the advent of the storm, and the dissipating daylight by mid-afternoon, I felt I needed a boost of light to distract me from the dark thoughts of coming winter.
We had a family gathering that afternoon. And as family members gazed out the picture window at the front of our house onto the lawn now covered by a couple inches of snow, they laughed. I didn’t anticipate that this six-foot tall Christmas tree would blink in sequences and bright colours enough to light up the whole yard. “Looks like the Vegas strip now on Ida Street,” I joked, thinking of all the shopping still on my ‘to do’ list and all the things that needed to be done. I felt the shroud of stress envelope my being.
That’s why Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, may be one of the most difficult seasons for Christians to observe. Most attempts in our culture to cover the darkness, literally and figuratively, only ramp up the anxiety, the fear and even the feelings of isolation that the festive season brings.
And yet, annual celebrations like Christmas are meant to transform our lives for the better. The message of God’s incarnation (Jesus, the Son of God, being born into human flesh) is transformative since now, in faith, we know God has entered our reality and changed forever the fabric of creation.
But how can the stress and incessant activity of the season contribute positively to our well-being, healing and growth? I don’t think it can, unless we give ourselves permission to hold off from fully embracing the joy of Christmas. Holding off may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive. Yet, the wisdom of the ages suggests that in order to see the new thing, we must first be willing to let go of what is not helpful. In other words, there’s some work we first have to do.
The prophet Isaiah announced the new thing which ushered Israel’s return to their homeland around Jerusalem. In order to start on that path, however, they would have to release their attachments to Babylon. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
The Israelites, apparently, had a ‘vision’ problem. They, as the way opened for them to return home, could not visualize such a Godly freedom and transformation of their lives for the good; they could not see God at work making a way out of their problem for them.
This pattern of being blinded to God’s work has repeated throughout the sacred stories of scripture: The same we read when the Israelites, centuries before, escaped bondage in Egypt, but spent decades wandering in the desert to find their “promised land”. Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to the Bishop, quoted on twitter this week the words of Peter Steinke who wrote: “It took one year to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We like familiar patterns” (@RiittaHepomaki).
Perhaps we, too, are like those ancient Israelites. We get stuck in familiar patterns. We limit ourselves, therefore, from seeing what God is up to.
So, we have to practice letting go. This is what liturgical season like Advent, and practices of prayer like Christian Meditation offer to us: Opportunities to contemplate, reflect and surrender those habits of the ego that merely gloss over the darkness of our lives.
How do we let go of fear, isolation, cynicism and defensiveness? How can we lay aside those things that do not, in the end, satisfy? How can we put on that which is good and wholesome?
Well, we first have to embrace the darkness, not circumvent it. God will make a way through the desert, not around it. We need to acknowledge the fear, the defensiveness, the isolation and the cynicism which normally hides the true light from shining. Like a piece of clothing, in order to take it off, we first must get a good grip on it. We need to ‘own’ it in order to cast it away.
This is why Advent is the time for confession, silence, stillness, penitence, waiting and preparation. These weeks leading up to Christmas give us an opportunity to prepare our hearts for the true joy, the true light that always comes into the world — not to get distracted by the glitz and hustle that, in the end, only keep us stuck in those familiar patterns of blindness to the truth.
When we pause to take stock, and honestly confess the truth that we are afraid, that we are defensive, that we are cynical, that we are isolated, etc. — the true light and joy comes not because of anything we can muster up, fabricate, manipulate or engineer. True happiness does not come in me plugging in that blinking Christmas tree on the front lawn — as much as I thought instinctively it might.
True joy comes when we wait for it. In the slowing down, pausing, and calm presence of ourselves, we can see better the gift that comes to us in the moment. Saint Paul seems pretty adamant in his letter to the Romans to stress that it is “NOW”, in this moment that our salvation has come. It is in the ordinary, commonplace, unspectacular activities of our daily lives that matters most to Christ’s coming to us. Do we not see it?
The story is told of a wise Rabbi who had many students come to him for advice. Once, a younger student came to the Rabbi and asked, “How can we tell when the dawn has arrived? How can we tell the difference between night and day?” It was a good question, the Rabbi acknowledged, since early in the morning the change is not easily perceptible: One moment it is night, the next it is already day — but when is the exact moment when it changes over?
“You know the night is gone, and the day has arrived,” the Rabbi responded, “when the faces of those around you in the dark are no longer mere shadows that all look the same, but when you can finally recognize who that person actually is, standing in front of you, when the light allows it.”
The Light of Christ is coming. God is always up to something good, even in the darkness. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when the stress amps up for the season. Even when we have difficulty letting go of familiar patterns. God is up to something, always.
So, in the meantime as we struggle to let go, let us learn to wait in the darkness, standing together. And then rejoice, when the light does come to illuminate our way and the gift of those near to us. In Christ.