One of the old saints of the Church – St. John of the Cross – once said of Advent, “The Heavens are Rumbling during Advent . . . but not for us.” That can be a bit of shock during this season, hearing the words, “Its not about you. It really never was about you.”
Coincidentally it is John of the Cross’ Feast Day tomorrow. In some of his writing, John of the Cross describes a kind of “dark contemplation,” something called the via negative, the ray of contemplative darkness; it is a path of moving more deeply into knowledge of God. This dark contemplation, via negative, stands in contrast to the sunny, chipper, more extroverted styles of affect that we associate with popular Christianity. It is reminiscent of proverb used in Stephen Ministry – “Don’t sing happy songs to the broken-hearted.”
Advent is about something different than forcing happiness into the empty spaces in our hearts and souls; especially this Advent. In its deepest recesses and mystery, Advent is about waiting.
John of the Cross points out that darkness, emptiness, silence, are sometimes a sure footed, path to God – rather than a forced happiness, or manufactured cheerfulness. I might add that confusion, anger, and fear, although seemingly barriers to God, they can actually provide a shorter path if they are honestly how we feel about our life. God is generally no closer than our honesty with ourselves.
There is a holiness in waiting; holiness in waiting for God to fill a space that we sometimes naively try to fill with light and music and tinsel and a posture of good cheer.
John mostly began to write his vision of prayer and waiting for God while he was in jail; imprisoned for disagreeing with the wrong people in Spain. There is something of a genre of spiritual classics written from jail; obviously we have the apostle Paul, we have John of the Cross, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. It has to do with being freed from distractions, surrendering to God. It has to do with being reduced waiting, waiting, and waiting.
Advent is about waiting with a girl who is pregnant; a girl who really has not a clue as to who, or what, exactly is going to be born from her womb. No notion; other than the dreams and conversation that she has been having with angels and God. In the words of John of the Cross, Mary’s heavens are rumbling, as she waits to discover what favor will befall a lowly servant.
Being an early believer in Christ meant living with this sense of the Heavens Rumbling. Early Christians mostly lived in a perpetual kind of Advent, at least for a few generations; wondering when Jesus might return to them, embrace them, finish one story of the earth and history, beginning another story of heaven and eternity.
The Eschatological Hope of the Church. Eschaton simply means last – the final event in the divine plan. And we are people who live with that sense of hope in the last things – that the best days of life are ahead of us. First Thessalonians is the oldest identifiable Christian document that we have – 52 AD. Paul is writing to an infant church in Thessalonica. They are on the pathway toward an unknown maturity. Being an early believer often meant taking a stand that would look foolish and unwise in the eyes of others. Being an early believer meant that you had some inclination that God was bringing a new light into the world, as we hear in John’s Gospel. Being an early believer meant that you were willing to suspend the certainty of all that you might have known, for the uncertainty and mystery of what might be.
These early Christians sometimes lived within hard situations, and they too faced difficult questions from within. One of the hardest questions with which to live was resolving to live within the uncertainty of knowing when the Lord might return.
“Could it be this week? This year? Could it be today . . . that my life will change? Lord we are praying for a change in this world, when is it you are going to break through the clouds?”
In our own lives we have mostly outlived this sense of urgency. And living on the cusp of such a hope, such an expectation, is actually very difficult. Having a mountaintop experience, and then struggling to stay on that mountaintop; dragging that mountaintop around with us through life. It is one reason why folks are sometimes on edge during the holidays; the greatest of all expectations is in the air, yet there is also the ray of darkness.
I believe this is why Paul is having to write these letters to the early Church – they are all wound up, ready, living on the edge of expectation, and yet they do not quite know where to go. The difficulty of waiting is causing them to unravel. Inviting them to fill a space with their own expectations as they wait for God to act again in their lives.
Their expectations have not been met. And so, as we are oft to do when we do not get what we are wanting deeply in our hearts, these Thessalonians are falling into the habits of spite, jealousy, blame – things that crop up when we are angry and disappointed.
Our season of Advent is a time for us to resist investing our waiting with too many of our own expectations; a time for us to wait and discover how God will surprise us with joy.
Throughout the history of the Church Advent has been considered a kind of little Lent. A time for self-examination, a return to centeredness in Christ, a time to reclaim the gravity of God in our lives. Advent is preparing us to receive the True gift from God, rather than simply live with the gifts that we might choose for ourselves.
Paul is giving this advice to the Thessalonians – wait patiently and with holiness for the gif that God means to give you: God is faithful.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
God is carrying during Advent the gift that we cannot give to ourselves – the gift of His love, and that can make all the difference in lives that are sometimes filled with shadow, fear, and noise.
Although it may not be the gift that we have wanted or expected, it is the gift that we need. This is how our holidays become our Holy Days.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who actively plotted against the Nazis regime. He had moved to the United States in order to find safety and security, only to discover that his heart was not at peace; that his heart still ached for the Church he had known and for his home country. Rather than live in safety in America, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to join in a plot to bring down Hitler.
He was arrested and put in prison, where even his guards were humbled by his holiness and his kindness. Bonhoeffer was engaged to be married at the time, and his letters to his young fiancée have joined that canon of Christian literature written from prison. In one of his letters he wrote,
“Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent. One waits and hopes and putters around . . . but in the end, what we do is of little consequence. The door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside.”
That my friends is the truth of Advent, the eschatological hope of the Church, the pregnant girl, and the deep recesses of our hearts during this season. We want or need something so badly that we will try to fill it with substitutes, our own version of music and lights, but in the end, “The doors of our hearts are shut, and they can only be opened from the other side.”
Paul reminds the infant Church, we are being reminded, to be patient and wait, wait with Mary, because God is faithful. The door that is shut in our lives, that one door that makes all the difference and leads to another country, is destined to be opened. He is coming. He will turn the lock.
“The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.”
Come Lord Jesus. Come Lord Jesus
Turn our rays of darkness and our waiting, our holidays, into our Holy Days with you.