Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent Paradox

Sermon preached Nov. 27, 2011
1st Sunday of Advent

We need to begin this morning with a moment of silence for Mark A – a relative newcomer to our parish, a man at the prime of his life who joined the Alleluia choir with his wife Marty this year; a vigorous athlete who at the age of 55 was struck by a major heart attack this week. While the rest of the country was enjoying its Thanksgiving feasts and football extravaganzas, Marty and their children Hillary and Jeffrey have been keeping vigil at the ICU with many friends and family members. Mark suffered severe brain damage as a result of the heart attack and the prognosis is not good. Yesterday they took him off life support. And so we wait, and we pray.

And so Advent begins: the season of waiting and praying.

People who come to the Episcopal Church from other traditions are sometimes surprised by how we celebrate Advent. They come here, expecting a season of joy, and what they find is a season that is more paradoxical than that. Advent is without a doubt our most paradoxical season: we embrace a season of Christmas cheer, even as our readings focus on judgment and apocalypse, like this one from Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus warns us of the days when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13: 24-37)

Those of us who are confused by this strange combination of themes might be comforted to know that it was not always thus. In the Roman Church, the season of Advent was, for over a thousand years, celebrated as an unambiguously joyful time. This makes sense, seeing as the Romans appropriated the celebration of Christmas from the pagan celebrations of the sun God, which featured lots of parties and gift-giving and tree decorating and candle lighting. If you were to walk into St. Peter’s in Rome any time before around 1150 AD, you would have found the priests and bishops wearing their most festive vestments, and choirs singing their most joyful songs.

But while the Christians in Rome were throwing their Advent parties and having a good old pagan time of it, the Christians in what is now mostly France held Advent as a season of penitence and prayer. The clergy wore black, which later changed to purple, there were strict rules for fasting, and parties were hard to find. In fact, Advent for the Franks was almost as severe as Lent, and lasted just as long – 40 days, not just 4 weeks.

And so it was that for over a thousand years, these two traditions existed side-by-side, until in the middle of the 12th Century, when the Roman church adopted some of the Frankish traditions of prayer and fasting and penitence, without giving up entirely on its love for parties.

Whether by historical coincidence, then, or mysterious divine plan, this is how Western Christianity developed this odd combination in Advent of both joy and remorse; feast and fast. In other words, it’s paradoxical – which is fitting, since our faith is all about paradox. After all, everything about Christianity is paradoxical: Jesus is fully human and fully divine; the Kingdom of God is fully here, and yet not yet; the last shall be first; we embrace both reason and faith; we find ourselves by losing ourselves; our weakness is our strength; we learn how to live only when we learn how to die; and we know that we will never find happiness when we make happiness our goal.

Ours is a paradoxical faith – and that is the secret of its wisdom and profound truth. Just as people from Santa Cruz carry bumper stickers that say, “Keep Santa Cruz weird,” just so we would be wise to keep Advent paradoxical. Or maybe "weird" really is the better word...

During the hours I spent in the waiting room this week with Marty and her family, with tears of joy and tears of sorrow flowing simultaneously, I was able to witness this truth once again. All of us who have lost a close loved one know this – that in grief we are overwhelmed by simultaneous waves of sweetness and sorrow. Paradox lies at the heart of all reality – which is just another way of saying that God’s reality is bigger than our nice little categories.

Last night, at our annual Advent party, after we made our Advent wreaths and decorated our Christmas ornaments and ate our cookies and drank our hot cider, we gathered outside in the darkness for what has become, for me, one of the most moving rituals of the year. Using pine boughs, the children laid-out a simple spiral labyrinth in the courtyard; at the center of the labyrinth was placed a lone candle – the Christ candle – and it was lit. We all sat in a big circle around the labyrinth, wrapped in blankets or warm coats against the darkness and the cold, and we entered into a watchful kind of prayer. As a Christmas carol from the Renaissance is played, even the most talkative and restless children grow quiet.

This year, it was Katie R who went first. Taking up her unlit candle, she walked carefully around the labyrinth while we prayed. When she got to the center, she touched her candle to the Christ candle, and then, bearing her light, she silently made her way back. At some point she set her candle down by the side of the little trail.

She was followed by all the other children, some walking solo, some accompanied by a mom or a dad, each of them lighting their candle at the Christ candle, and leaving it along the trail, until after a little while the trail along the labyrinth was lit by these flickering lights.

By the time it was my turn to walk around the labyrinth, the trail was lit by 15 or so flickering candles; and I found myself giving thanks for all of those who have gone before me; those who have lit the way; those who have left this world a brighter place. I found myself in communion with my mother and my brother, who have passed over to the other side; and with Mark, as he lay in mortal weakness; and with all our children, who bring such unadulterated joy into our lives. By the end, sitting under the stars, we beheld a flickering little galaxy of lights in the form of a spiral, that most primeval of forms; and I found myself once again in that place of paradox; simultaneously conscious of death and new life, bathed in grief and in joy.

For our children, this simple little ritual has become the essential thing that we must do every year to prepare for Christmas. When, some years ago, the suggestion was made that we skip the labyrinth, it was the children who insisted it be continued; each year, they are the ones who lead the construction of the labyrinth, and they are the ones who teach the younger kids what to do.

And so the tradition of Advent paradox continues: young and old; life and death; light and dark; grief and joy. We lift our hearts to all of it; all of life in all of its exquisite contradiction, and we give thanks for all of it.