November 30, 2014
The First Sunday of Advent
I was moved to stand here today mostly by the Isaiah Scripture, particularly that phrase, “Thou art the Potter—I am the clay.” Since it’s the first Sunday in Advent, I wondered how that thought portrayed the birth of Jesus. We know that Isaiah predicted the birth of The Messiah several times, saying, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son ,” and once he even confessed his own doubts: “Shall a woman bear a child without pain?…Who has heard of anything like this?” Like Isaiah, those are my thoughts too, but since am the clay, I’m not yet fully formed.
One reason this text moves me so much is that God has gifted our community with so many artists–potters, painters, writers, musicians, photographers, knitters, quilters, dancers, gardeners, cooks, parents; and I want to add here others who don’t bear the title of artist. These are people gifted in: numbers, the law, medicine, computers, therapy, teaching, and science. We don’t call them artists, but really, they are. We all are. And I know I’ve forgotten many of you. We are the clay, born to be gifted in one art or another—when God lays hands on us.
Just think how we were chosen to be. It’s impossible for me to grasp. So many other persons might have been chosen instead of you or me. It must have been God saying, “I choose you.” So here we are. As it says in Psalm 139, “You , God, have knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Yes, each one of us is a mystery. How does that apply to the upcoming Advent season? Well, isn’t Jesus, the Christ, a mystery? Not just his birth, but his life, death, and resurrection? Jesus was clay turned by God into the Savior, who knew God and taught us about God as no one before or since has done.
When I was a teacher, first in middle school, then in elementary , I taught children about reading, writing, and parts of speech. Parts of speech were very interesting to me, particularly nouns and verbs. Nouns were people, places, or things. Verbs were either active or passive. The verbs in our Isaiah scripture—are (or art) and am—are classified as active, although they do not bring a connotation of action. Yet in my mind, they couldn’t be more active, and God, the great I AM, makes them so. In today’s Mark Scripture, the verb is two words, keep awake. And in Corinthians, Wait for Jesus to show himself. Wait! These are perfect words to help us prepare for the Advent season. First “Thou art,” then “keep awake,” and finally “wait.”
The history of Advent is interesting. It was not named a holiday season at the time of Jesus’ birth because the Christian Church did not exist then. December 25 as the nativity date was first suggested in the Fourth Century . It was a move by the early Church fathers who wished to eclipse the date of a rival pagan religion named Mithra that threatened the existence of Christianity. It is important to know that for two centuries after Jesus’s birth, few people knew or cared when he was born. The Mithra cast originated in Persia and was very popular with Romans in the First Century BCE. By 274 CE, it was proclaimed the state religion. In 300, it was unclear which religion, Mithraism or Christianity, would be the state religion. However, both Roman patricians and plebeians felt they needed a December celebration. So they declared December 25 to be Jesus’s birth date, and they named it after a mass: Christ mass, or Christmas. One Christian theologian in the 300s said, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made the sun.”
The celebration of Christmas took permanent hold in the Western world in 337, when the Roman emperor Constantine was baptized, uniting for the first time the Crown and the Church. Later, Saint Francis of Assisi popularized the Christmas crib, or crèche, in his celebration of the Nativity in Greccio, Italy. This was in 1223. He used wooden figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, sheep, and shepherds. This started a tradition still popular today, and we Seekers also venerate those figures in our Christmas celebration.
The name Advent, from the Latin adventus, means “coming.” This was first observed in the Fourth Century with fasting, prayer, and meditation. Now it is celebrated with the decoration of Christmas trees, caroling, and endless shopping for gifts. Of course, we also celebrate it with prayer and meditation.
How do these words help us get into the meaning of Advent and the birth of Jesus? Meditation, contemplation, prayer. These are not ways of thinking. They are ways of moving our brains into our hearts, where we are closer to God. That is where love is, and God is love.
Our history as Christians is not one of which to be proud. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit and taught us about love. After his death we wanted him to come back and do this for us. But look at our history: holy wars, crusades, pogroms, witch burnings, and the persecution of Jesus’ own brothers and sisters, the Jews. Does the killing of fellow human beings serve either God or humans? Jesus gave us many rules, but the greatest of these was: love one another.
But I am getting away from today’s subject, the oncoming birth of Jesus, the Messiah. We each have our favorite meanings of what Jesus has meant to us. For me one of the greatest has been the truth of the paradox–that in opposites we can find positives: In death there is life. In sorrow there is joy. In sin there is forgiveness. Or as Paul says in today’s Scripture: Wait. Just wait.
It is our brains that get us into trouble trying to understand the Gospel story. My brain depends on facts. I have learned to believe that in religion, dependence on facts can lead to rigidity. We must enlarge the picture–shift from our brains to our hearts. For instance, we can never know who, why, or how God is, or why we were born. We can never know why a sperm and egg union produced us. Who and why am I? Or you? Or Jesus the Christ? It is in our hearts that we believe, not in our minds.
Then there are dreams. Dreams, sometimes even nightmares, are our friends. Look at them. Ask them questions. Write them down. Maybe six months from now you’ll say, “Ah, yes, I know what that was about.” Also, insomnia can be turned to good use. Night is a good time for meditation and prayer. Things come to us in the night, residue from the day or from our early lives. As a child I was made to go to church every Sunday. I remember being very bored by sermons. The hymns were what I waited for. Now I have this collection of hymns inside me that is so great. These often come to me at night and serve me well. I see them as prayers. Singing is a wonderful, beautiful way to pray. And we have great music on Sunday mornings, thanks to our musicians, who were clay turned to art.
How do we take the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, into our lives? For me, when my brain doesn’t help me, I move south to my heart. There I find the mystics. One of my favorites is the medieval writer of The Cloud of Unknowing. Beat on that cloud, he says, through contemplation, meditation, and prayer. Thomas Keating calls this centering prayer. Not easy. We are so used to thinking–and this is not thinking. How can I do this? we say. I am not a monk or a nun. Well, we can do it through silence. Or rather, it is done for us within us, or as Paul says, “Wait. Just wait.”
The mystics call me to silence. We do not need to know answers. But we do need to have faith that God, the Potter, is within this clay that we are, and somewhere there are answers. When I am at the end of my rope, or conversely, when I am in the presence of something wonderful, or beautiful, words fail me. At such times I repeat within myself, “God, God.” And often there is a welling up in my throat, and I know that God is within me. I feel sure that God is present everywhere, but often hidden behind that cloud of unknowing. We need to beat on that cloud with darts of longing love.
And now, as we approach Advent and Christmas, let us celebrate Christ’s birth. It matters not whether or not December 25 was the actual date. Jesus was born. We know that. And his life changed our lives. So let this time of waiting bring love to others, as well as gratitude for the love that is ours.