December 23, 2012, Year C, The 4th Sunday of Advent
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“My soul doth magnify the Lord!” “My soul magnifies the Lord!” “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”
Christmas is right here, a rising glimmer on the horizon. Christmas trees stand in most of our homes draped in all forms of family tradition; glowing, beautiful. Wreathes greet us on doors everywhere we go, what a welcome; rich, living fragrant greens at the precise moment we are furthest from the sun. We have bushels of greens to deck these halls with after Mass for the big day tomorrow. I was here late on Thursday night and I paused looking East towards the ridge. Beautiful. The twinkling lights, wood smoke on the air. I stood out on the porch, bundled up, warm and cozy on a drizzly Oregon Solstice eve. The words of today’s closing hymn have been bubbling in me this past week. “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;/Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.” Beautiful. It doesn’t get much better than that. The English language shines this time of year. “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…” “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Hail Mary, thou art full of grace without a doubt. Beautiful.
By beautiful I am mean beautiful in the way Plato talks about beauty, the way St. Thomas talks about beauty, a statement of pure perfection that reflects an actuality about the nature of things, or as Thomas would say, God. We don’t do that much, describe God, because the act of even describing God domesticates, limits, shackles God to humanly graspable proportions. But beauty, true, graceful, elegant, serendipitous and utter beauty is self-evident. It, like God, just is, so the great doctors of the church tell us that yes, God is beautiful. “All thy works with joy surround Thee earth and heaven reflect Thy rays, Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of the Trinity.” This song carries us God-ward in its sheer joyous beauty. This season, this annual journey towards the Christ event, our Holy remembrance of the coming of the Lord, the Word made flesh, is all about beauty, all about a beautiful, precious light coming into a darkened world, As St. John reveals to us, “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
There is a lot of darkness, though. This week I found myself vacillating between tears of many colors. I teared up in joy in the beauty of the words of “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” Dave Fenton sent me a viral video of a flash mob in a mall singing this hymn. I usually hate stuff like that, but this one saved my week. I shed tears of being overwhelmed by God in the words of the King James Bible placed in the mouth of a child, Linus, who explained the true meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown, saying, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” At this, Hannah Maeve leaned over and excitedly said, “He got it right!” And we all shed tears, too many tears, or maybe not enough tears as funerals radiated out from Newtown. There were five on Friday. Darkness. Horror and deep darkness.
This is a dark season, winter, truly dark, which is precisely why our European spiritual ancestors celebrated the good news of the Nativity of our Lord at the solstice. With bright candles and tenacious greens daring to live while everything else is dead or dormant reminds us that a light does shine in the darkness and the darkness, no matter how inky, how vast, how impenetrable it seems will not overcome it.
While the light shines, it does not make everything OK. It can not explain tragedy. God doesn’t offer explanations and nor can we. Nor in and of itself can this Light, God, relieve suffering. There is no comfort for those who grieve intimately in the community of Newtown, nor us who grieve from afar. The only consolation in the face of unmitigated horror is that God is with us, everyone, God’s arms are open, God sheds tears with and for the dead, the grieving, the angry, the guilty. God in Jesus Christ knows fully the suffering of the world, and with us, God’s heart breaks, too.
God offers no easy solutions, ours is not a vengeful god. Our God offers only the hard pills of empathy and forgiveness that are difficult to choke down with a throat so full of grief, but that is the Christian way, or it is supposed to be. Our God, the mighty counselor, Prince of Peace entered this world in the city of David, not Jerusalem, the city of King David whose line Christ was heralded to restore, but in Bethlehem, the city of an anonymous David, an illiterate shepherd boy turned warlord of dubious character. Jesus Christ, the beloved of God was not born to a princess which would be befitting the King of Kings, but to a 13 or 14 year old peasant girl who probably could have been stoned to death for adultery, obviously apparent in her pregnancy before her betrothal to a man likely twice her age. Only the graciousness of Joseph prevented this fate. The paradox of Christianity also leads us to the abomination of the Cross which leads to the glory of the resurrection, though of course Cross-like suffering is not reserved for Christ, as the murders last week makes obvious.
Abominations, darkness, horrendous evil and tragedy are not preludes to Gods favor. Someone dies and the comforting words offered are, “Oh, she’s in a better place now.” That is a load of horsecocky but from a bull. A clergyman prayed that over my dead grandmother’s body and I almost punched him in the nose, almost as Christian a sentiment as his blasphemous prayer. Horror is not a fast track to God as evidenced by the volume of meaningless suffering throughout the ages, but… but… the presence of vast suffering, the horrendous evil that shrouds specific times and places does not keep God out. No matter how dark the night, how deep the suffering, how senseless the slaughter or how innocent the slaughtered, God is always there wading into the darkness, shining a light as bright as the Christ Child into the world, a beacon on dark and stormy seas for the lost of every age, and the broken, suffering, the confused, ambivalent, the mean and the bored. For everyone.
From here, from Advent, we ascend to the heights of incarnational joy in Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas. We then move through the Epiphany and the proclamation of God’s arrival, and then are right on to the long march from Galilee to Jerusalem, from Bethlehem to Golgatha, from the manger to the cross and the terror of Good Friday. We then descend with Christ to the realm of the dead and we rise in the miracle of Resurrection into Easter. From the true beauty of a proper Anglican Advent and Christmas… the Marian blues, the joyful scripture, the glorious music, “Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed/Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest;” to the abject suffering of parents grieving the murder of young children and to the cold, wet people begging from street corners made quiet because most people are home enjoying the most important feast day in our American culture at home with their families. And then there is simply the brokenness we each carry in our hearts this time of year, loved ones made distant through death, estrangement or simple geography, memories of Christmas past that haunt us, or the melanchoia of seeing another year slip away, another year closer to the kids leaving home, another year closer to our common destiny in the grave. From billowing joy to the most mournful suffering, Jesus Christ comes, eternally comes with the one very simple promise: I am with you. He solves no problems, He answers no questions, He doesn’t explain why things are so bad or are so good, but His presence in our lives, in so much as we will have it, in so much as we make room for Him in our soul, the mystery and presence of Jesus Christ is our salvation. That is the promise from old, from ancient days. That is what we wait for in Advent, what we celebrate in our high feast tomorrow. These are very good tidings of an even greater joy. This is the heart of Jesus Christ, this is the true meaning of the Christmas we approach on the horizon; and it is beautiful. “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother all who live in love are Thine;/Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.” AMEN