How to “Get” Advent

I’ve finally stopped for the day.  No more appointments to keep, meetings to attend, or business to do.  I’m reading and watching video about the shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, CT.  I had picked up the news during the day, like most people, but the items on my calendar and the travel between them kept me from absorbing. Of course this was partly intentional because I had things that had to be done and listening to the news on the radio was something I frankly  didn’t think I could handle and still be in any emotional shape for at least two of the afternoon’s three appointments.

Now, I’ve stopped.  I read through the news stories on the Internet. I absorb the information: 27 people dead. 20 children. The shooter a son of one of the teachers at the school. The third senseless shooting in a public place in the last week.  All things come in threes, even the dark ones.    I don’t have anything left. No energy, no emotional resources.  I’m going through a divorce and my son is still living with his mother 1,800 miles away.  Like many parents today, I just want my child. He’s 16. I can’t reach him on the phone and he’s not online.  I begin to cry. Not the silent, manly tear down the cheek that our culture prefers when men cry if they cry at all, but racking sobs. The type of crying I imagine the writers of the psalms did while beseeching God to smite their enemies or restore their faith or end their pain. And right now I relate to all of those. I also relate to Advent. Powerfully. Today was an Advent day.

During one of my meetings today, the only one that was social and not work or business in some way, I met a friend and her infant son for lunch.  Our first words were hellos followed by “there’s been a shooting.”  Then she said something that may have been the most powerful statement I heard today, “I don’t understand people who say they don’t “get” Advent.”  Neither do I.  Today was as Advent as it gets. Cold. Dark. Waiting on light that has to come or the despair for the world is total and complete.

I have an Advent vespers service to lead on Sunday.  I have friends and colleagues leading services and vigils tonight.  The overriding questions perhaps not so much Advent questions as Christmas questions: Where’s the light?  Where’s the Peace on Earth?  Have Christmas and Advent fed us lies and made us false promises?  What’s worse, to never be promised light and love and peace or to be promised these things only to have lived experience claim that they never come through?

At the end of Bruce Springsteen’s song the River, the speaker, a man married to his high school sweetheart under the dual pressures of church and middle class culture due to her pregnancy becomes trapped by America’s class system in the same drudgery of working life as his parents, laments “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

The shooting in Newtown, CT today leaves me on the banks of the same River as Springsteen’s protagonist.  The dream of Christmas, the promise of Advent, is that there will be light after the darkness, there will be a dawn after the night, the light will return and there is reason to hope.  Yet the promise of peace on earth and the return of the light seems like a lie or worse tonight.    The peace gets shattered again and again and again and again.  The light seems dim.

U2’s song Peace on Earth is about the Omaugh  bombing of 1998 carried out by an IRA splinter group opposed to the Good Friday agreements. Twenty-nine people were killed and 220 injured.   Bono sings:

Jesus could you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
Tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth
No whos or whys
No-one cries like a mother cries
For peace on Earth
She never got to say goodbye
To see the color in his eyes
Now he’s in the dirt
That’s peace on Earth

They’re reading names out over the radio
All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know
Sean and Julia, Gareth, Anne and Breda
Their lives are bigger, than any big idea

No one cries like a mother cries.  Twenty mothers in CT cried that way today.  I cried with them.  How, how do we go on preaching peace on earth and preaching the triumphant return of the light in the face of such darkness?

Perhaps it is only by faith.  Only by an abiding trust that light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot over come it. The Christmas and Advent seasons adopted and adapted the Pagan observances of the winter solstice. The imagery is the same – light after darkness, evergreens, fire, even the sun/son coming into the world.  Maybe it’s those roots of the season that need to rescue it this year.  The faith we need is the faith born of experience and observation that no matter how long and dark the night, the light always returns and the days always  get longer again.  It is the way of things. It is built into the fabric of nature in this existence.

Perhaps we have to return to faith in ourselves. Trust that the light within us is strong enough to pierce through the night, however dark, and that whatever we light we have to shine, as little a light as  it may be, is of great help and great worth.  It is too late for anything but to mourn and to grieve those who died today.  But now is the time to shine what light we have in order to dispel the darknesses of tomorrow. Should we not let our light shine, we may just be giving the darkness what it needs to assault us again.  The light we shine may not prevent every horror and injustice and pain of tomorrow, but without the light we do shine there will most certainly be more pain and sorrow than if we had kept our light hidden or to ourselves.

A colleague shared these words from The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, noting that they may be even more needed today than they were in 1963. Speaking at the funeral for children killed in a church bombed by opponents of integration, King said:

“…We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.” “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” (1963).

This is Advent. The dark before the dawn. The pain before relief. The waiting period where faith and trust and hope are born.  Get it?

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