Entry into Advent: the pacing of discovery

Psalm 80 is often read in churches all over the world during the Advent season. Throughout this psalm of yearning we pray, “restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  

I live in a neighborhood that shares rhythms of prayer each day. We are a community of persons with all sorts of abilities, limitations and gifts, attempting to welcome one another into the reality of God’s presence with us, here and now. We seek to proclaim this reality through our daily lives of mutual care and friendship among persons with and without developmental disabilities.  

Recently, after we read Psalm 80 as part of our morning prayer, one of our wise sisters, Amy Lynn, offered this plea:

“Jesus I want you to see me. I want to see you. I want to see your face. I want you to come close to me and hug me. I want to see you all around me. I want to see you in the people walking around; people I know and people I don’t know. I want to see you and I want you to be close to me.”

I sprinted home to jot down this longing for a holy vision of the world because I surely didn’t want to forget it. We were led by a tender prayer of yearning from one seeking to see and be seen by God: a picture of Advent.

Over the last several years, I have gradually learned  to see prayer as an encounter of discovery. In his book “Into the Silent Land,” Martin Laird offers a framework for the spiritual life by distinguishing between discovery and acquisition.

Much of my life, I have been formed to imagine basically everything as an opportunity for achievement – a chance to prove, to compete, to gain something. But in the gift of prayer, we are invited into a different way. We are invited into a discovery of what is real and true and beautiful through no merit of our own. In the gift of prayer we are invited to discover a new vision of the world; God’s vision.

God alone is the Holy One, abundant in mercy and loving-kindness. We are at union with God in Jesus, and we are the beloved of God in Jesus. This is a reality we cannot acquire on our own. It is a gift in which we participate through discovery in the Holy Spirit.

And discovery has a pacing to it. I certainly know the pacing of acquisition. There is a necessary speed inherent in reaching for self-promotion or organizing my schedule based on efficiency. This pacing is often frenetic and hasty in its certainty that there are better things to do (or, at least, other things to do right when this thing is finished). The pacing of achievement is pretty fast. This pacing, though, can be destructive; steamrolling organizations or people or ways of life that can’t keep up. The pacing of achievement can creep into the our spiritual life, bolstering the illusion that practices of prayer are meant to merit something not already there. This pacing can even diminish our capacity to rightly see and encounter Jesus coming to us in the form of the one who is vulnerable and in need of care. But the pacing of discovery is a bit different. Thank goodness I am surrounded by friends and neighbors who remind me to receive time as a gift and to release my tight grip on the idol of busyness.  

But discovery takes time.

painting-Mary
Original painting, depicting Psalm 34,  by Janice Little

In Advent, we receive the gift of time as we wait and prepare and learn to eagerly anticipate the coming of our Lord. One of the reasons I appreciate celebrating Advent each year is that it is a season of discovery. In Advent, we wait anew for the coming of Jesus – the same coming we celebrated last year and the year before. Yet each year, we are invited to enter Advent with an openness to being changed by new beauty.

In Advent we unearth our own little obstacles to the transformation of the coming of our Lord who reigns over all the earth. In Advent we excavate our true identities as participants in the very life of God through the birth of this little one – baby Jesus. And yet, Advent isn’t Christmas … so we wait and we sit and we still ourselves and we receive time for silence in order to receive and respond to the one true word of God, Jesus Christ.

Amen, there is a pacing at the heart of Advent. In this, the first season of the church calendar, we are reminded to slow down. This slowing down allows us to remember Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, Christ’s final and ultimate coming in all glory in the redemption of the world, and Christ’s coming in each moment of our lives here and now through the Holy Spirit. In Advent, we are beckoned to hesitate in front of God in prayer and in front of one another in our relationships. Hesitation makes room for us to wonder at the presence of God in the other and to anticipate in openness the coming of our Lord in unexpected ways. How often does our quick pace cultivate patterns of enclosing ourselves in inattention to God’s presence around us? How often does our haste enclose us in predetermined formulas for God’s activity in our life?

When Psalm 80 framed Amy’s prayer, it was laced with longing. This Advent, may we cultivate a longing for God’s coming. May we gain a vision to see all the tiny ways God comes to us each day.

May the Holy Spirit lead us into a humble openness to discovering and participating in the Word made flesh – Emmanuel … God is with us. May we receive the time to hesitate in front of one another and to kindle desire for God as we echo the prayer of our dear friend, Amy Lynn … Jesus, we want to see you, we want to see your face, we want you to come close and hug us. Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-babyGreg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

An Advent song for our age

Credit: https://www.shcj.org/reflection-on-the-visitation-of-mary/

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”Luke 1:41-44

Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!

Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!

Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.

Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.

No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;

behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age

to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,

dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones

but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;

the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,

remembering his mercy,

according to his promise to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

 

I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Truly-Our-Sister-Theology-Communion/dp/0826418279

For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.[1]

With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.[2]

Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”[3]

Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.[4]

Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty.[5] Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity.[6] I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.

Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.

By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.[7]

Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.

As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!

AMEN!

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.

[2] Johnson, 264-265.

[3] Johnson, 269.

[4] Johnson, 271.

[5] Johnson, 269.

[6] Johnson, 270.

[7] Johnson, 267.

 

let’s get ready

My heart has been craving Advent for a couple of weeks now.

"vigil lights" by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“vigil lights” by Julia Walsh FSPA

I have been hungry for some quality getting-ready time.  The time that I’m wanting is not a period packed with the stuff or resolutions, penance, or spiritual obligations.  It’s not about hard work or removing abundance.  I don’t have to give everything away nor fast instead of feast.  Although I’ll deal with my sinfulness it’s not the focus.

Nope, this Advent time that I have been hungry for is much more fun than remembering how I am a sinner.  It’s full of joy and glory.  This time is about excited anticipation, about jumping up and down because we know something great is coming to town, about decorating and preparing our lives and hearts for the greatest party ever.  The excitement energizes and anything that once seemed mundane now is zapped with a love for life.

It’s kind-of like when, in college, my friends and I used to spend an hour or two getting dressed up and doing our hair to go out dancing. The fun was in the preparation. Being together, singing, laughing and snacking with the nervous energy of anticipation was probably much more fun than the rest of the evening.

It’s kind-of like the baby shower we had for my sister a couple of months ago.  The fun was in the silly games, the feasting, stories, goofy gifts, and wondering what the new person would be like.

This time is kind-of like the fun that my sister and I had a couple of years ago when we decided to make a thanksgiving feast for the rest of our family. Before anyone else arrived, the kitchen turned into a huge mess of creativity.  As we got ready, we laughed, sang, danced and tasted everything good in sight.

This Advent time is also kind-of like when the sisters and I gather to pray by candlelight before a night of house fun.  We don’t exactly know how the evening will end or what wacky thing will happen and it doesn’t matter.  Before the laughter and chatter, we’re totally content with waiting and praying together in the sacred silence of the dark.

It’s all about getting ready, anticipation, joy, and prayerful waiting.

Love is on the horizon, and we are full of joy and hope because we know what’s near.

This God time has arrived.

Let’s get this Love-preparation-party started.

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.                                   – 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13