I don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure, but when I do, I usually gravitate towards mysteries. I love the way skilled mystery writers can weave together a complex plot involving a whole cast of characters, somehow leaving us hanging at the end of each chapter, eager for more. The situations the detectives find themselves in are always so complicated – there are numerous suspects with possible motives and pieces of evidence that don’t seem to fit, and we’re wondering how this tangled situation will ever be resolved. But, invariably, in the final pages the truth comes out, the villain makes a fatal mistake, a key piece of evidence comes to light, or the detective has a brilliant flash of insight, and the whole complex situation finds resolution. 95% of the book is spent weaving the complicated plot, and the last 5% is spent resolving and explaining the mystery.
Most of the time I find these kinds of stories satisfying. (I do like a tidy ending!) But at times the ending feels too neat and I think to myself, ‘that’s not how life works.’ Situations in life that are as tangled as this don’t resolve themselves quite this conveniently, most of the time.
It is curious that we begin a new season today, the First Sunday of the Advent season. Outside the walls of this monastery chapel, a new season began just after Halloween, called “Holiday Shopping Season,” along with the Amazon promise that you can have it all now… at least by tomorrow. The season of Advent interposes quite an opposite theme. Anticipating Christmas is not about immediacy. Rather, it is about watching, and waiting, and preparing to celebrate Christ’s infant birth at Bethlehem, and to prepare for Christ’s promise that he will come again in real time. In Advent, you will see no holiday glitter here in this chapel. What catches our eye’s attention is the Advent wreath, front and center, on which we slowly light candles. In the Hebrew scriptures, the promised Messiah teems with the language of light. The Messiah is called “the Dayspring,” “the Morning Star,” “the Sun of Righteousness,” “the Light of the World.”
And don’t we need light, especially as we approach the winter solstice? Meanwhile, there’s more and more darkness outside. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th probably has to do with light. The earliest Christians most likely wanted the date of Christmas to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[i] This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky: December 25th.[ii] And so light has historically figured very importantly into this Advent season preparing for the coming and coming again of Christ: light. Light in the sky and light in our souls.
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whom we commemorate today, was born on July 19, 1754 with the given name Prochorus Moshnin, and on November 20, 1778 he arrived at the Sarov wilderness monastery as a new monk. Prochorus was inclined towards solitude and asceticism, and with the blessings of the head of the monastery, Father Pachomius, he would spend Wednesday’s and Friday’s in isolation in the forest, practicing the Jesus Prayer.
Prochorus spent eight years as a novice, and was then given the name Seraphim, after the fiery angels of heaven, and referring to his fiery love for the Lord. After the death of Father Pachomius, Seraphim received the blessing of the new head of the monastery to live a solitary life in the forest a few miles away, returning only for Saturday evening Vigil and the Sunday Liturgy.
Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.
I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.
Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.
Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
Advent Preaching Series: “O Radiant Light: Come and Enlighten Us.”
This evening is the second in a three-part Advent sermon series on the “O Antiphons,” which have been prayed in Christian monasteries since about the 6thcentury. An antiphon is a short focusing sentence that precedes and follows the singing of a psalm or canticle. The seven “O Antiphons” are sung at Evensong before and after the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, between December 17th and December 23rd, in anticipation of Christmas. Each of the “O Antiphons” uses a title for the Messiah found in the prophecy of Isaiah.[i] These antiphons begin with “O,” in the sense of when something dawns on you, and you say with exclamation, “Oh!” This evening our theme is “O Radiant Light: Come and enlighten us.”
Light figures very importantly in this season. Look around. Candlelights appear here on the Advent wreath. Outside we find strings of light thread across streets, in shop windows, on housetop gables, on fireplace mantles, and on Christmas trees. These festive lights this season of the year actually have a Christian history, but not a Christian origin. Let’s take a step backward in history before we move forward.
Out of their gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.
When I was about twenty-four year old, I encountered the film adaptation José Saramago’s novel, Blindness, and Advent returns my mind to Saramago’s gripping allegory. Blindness chronicles the harrowing story of a handful of characters who, along with citizens of their unidentified city, become stricken with an inexplicable, contagious blindness. As the condition spreads, an epidemic is declared and those afflicted by “the white sickness” are quarantined in a filthy, overcrowded asylum. When the protagonist’s husband, an ophthalmologist, contracts the condition, she joins him in captivity by lying to the authorities about her health: she can still see. Within the asylum, conditions deteriorate quickly. When food becomes scarce, an armed ward of the asylum seizes what rations remain and terrorizes the other wards with unspeakable cruelty. “The doctor’s wife” eventually frees the small band, only to discover the whole world stricken.
Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22
It’s remarkable that our first lesson, from the Revelation to John, includes one of the most tender passages in the whole of the scriptures. The Book of Revelation, which is so full of nightmarish-like scenes depicting the cosmic battle between good and evil, includes a momentary truce, where we hear these very inviting words attributed to Jesus:
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;
if you hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”[i]
Where I first learned this passage from scripture was not with my ears but with my eyes: from the painting of William Holman Hunt entitled “The Light of the World.”[ii] You, too, may have been a child when you first saw a reproduction. The original 1850’s painting hangs in the chapel of Keble College at Oxford University. William Holman Hunt produced a later version in 1900, which toured the world and now has its home at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Since that world tour, a century ago, this painting has been reproduced innumerable times in Sunday School papers, in illustrative Bibles, and in devotional literature the world o’er. The painting has also been a source of inspiration for many poets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson.[iii]