Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #15:
Let's be honest about two things. First, it's really hard to keep writing Advent meditations, ironic or not, day after day (in my case usually night after night) especially in this, the longest Advent in all of history. I just made that up, not having checked any calendars or caring to do so. It just feels really long.
Second, and this sounds a lot like the first one but is really quite different. It's really hard to keep keeping Advent, ironic or not, day after day (or night after night) especially in this, the longest wait ever for a coming King and a coming Kingdom.
That's why I almost called these Agnostic Advent Meditations when I first started doing this. But Edwin wouldn't let me. And Jennifer, who sort of hates irony (or pretends to, because what she really hates is pessimism), I knew, would push back even on Ironic Advent Meditations. And the push back is half the battle as Marcus Aurelius once said. Or maybe it was Lauren Winner, but I know it was somebody really smart alecky.
I LOVE keeping Advent and Christmas. I loved it when I was a child. I love/hate it now. And I love the stuff people do with their kids. Can I use all caps again? LOVE.
When my kids were little, we LOVED to go see the lights. The Christmas lights we called them. Now, though, I know that such lights are, necessarily, Advent Lights. I think everyone of my children excitedly jumped up and down and called them "Chrishmash Heights" their first Christmas or two. Either they did, or we made them do it because we were into CUTE. I mean by big boy, Matt, who was born big and is now big and married and hard-working and all those things you hope your child will be (along with BIG), was SO EXCITED. He could hardly breathe: Chrishmash Hights! Glook! Glook! (That's how he said, Look!) More Chrishmash Hights!
So fair a fancy few would weave in these years!
That's Thomas Hardy. You can look it up. From one of the greatest agnostic Christmas poems ever written, "The Oxen." It's about children too. And childhood faith. And the loss of that. And the longing for that.
And friends, I know that the longing itself is a kind of sickeness that I just don't want to be healed from. Even though I find the Christmas lights pretty boring these days, unless there is a Grinch and a Snoopy and a Jesus all one display. That I find kind of interesting at least.
John the Baptist (oh no, they say, he's going to work John the Baptist into this!)of course, knew all about this deflated Advent feeling. This Advent . . . lack. This Advent Absence. In the reading from the gospel yesterday, the Third Sunday of Advent, John, my hardscrabble hero, he who had foretold the Advent of the Christ while still in his old mother's womb (some people I know hate that word), he who had proclaimed the Advent of the king and his kingdom at the waters of Jordan, he who had sent his own disciples to follow "the lamb of God," found himself in prison and worse.
I say worse because stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage (quoth Lovelace), but doubt and despair and disappointed hopes and a lost vision, these most certainly can lock us up. When you have that vision (and this has little to do with truth claims as such) the future, the change that's gonna' come, the goodness for which we hope,is right there. You can feel it. You can taste it in the air.
And when you don't have that... life really sucks. Or seems to (St. Paul teaches that feeling sucky may not be the same as actually sucking). It's in one of the epistles I'm pretty sure.
John had lost it. That vision. Maybe being in prison did that to him. But, maybe, too, he was wondering because it had been a long wait. And, too, perhaps because his knowledge was only partial. Perhaps he didn't know exactly what he was looking for, other than his cousin with a dove on his head. Like us.
Why oh why in its sometimes questionable wisdom would church tradition put this story in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent. Shouldn't we be gearing up for big-screen televisions, angel songs, and Christmash heights?
Anyway, or anyways as Jennifer Lynne Ricke and some other friends of mine say, John isn't known today as Depressed John or Downer John or Bummer John (or Stoner John, that was a guy I knew in college). He's known as Saint John. Pardon me while I say that I LOVE that, all caps. Because friends, a lot of the time, and specifically a lot of Advent, I feel a lot like hardscrabble John in the prison,or Thomas Hardy in his childhood home on Christmas Eve, or Harry Potter after finding out he had to go live with that really gross family for yet another school holiday. It's so hard to wait when I'm not exactly sure I believe it and I'm not exactly sure what I'm waiting for.
Put another way, I'm afraid this might be just another youth group Twister game when we got all excited from doing all those things you do when you play co-ed Twister but are doomed, by the nature of the thing, to stay frustrated.
Turns out, the saints are all over this. I won't name them all. They already get feast days and special things and people leave them flowers and all the rest. They've done all right for themselves. It's you and me I'm worried about folks. Like Didi and Gogo from Waiting for Godot, we get tired of scanning the horizon but don't want to give up. We are sick with waiting, but sometimes I wonder if hope isn't our biggest sickness.
"Are you the promised one?" John asks from his prison cell. Like . . . is my hope misplaced, because that would be the greatest disappointment of all. Why does it have to be so difficult?
Advent is about waiting. Advent is about hope. Advent depends upon the absence of the coming one and confronts us with our own need and, yes, our own sick hope. Some of the saints, and I won't name names (john of the cross), make it sound like this happens so we will learn abandonment (whoa, there's a spiritual discipline I'd like to avoid)and sheer something or other-ness. Whatever, I just know it's sheer.
I have an alternative explanation. There is no explanation.
Hold on with me. I will hold on with you. A child will be born. Maybe a king. Maybe a grandchild (come on kids!). The blind will see. The lame will walk. Jennifer will like irony. Love will rise in our hearts like the daystar from on high. People will decide not to die. To quit drinking. To start dancing. To reconcile with their parents or their children or their neighbors or . . . gulp . . . their enemies.
It's worth the absence now if that for which we hope will come. Don't be surprised, though, by the absence. That, alas, is sure to come. Remember the gospel of the Third Sunday of Advent. Be surprised when the sweetness comes. Yes, and leap for joy, in or out of your mama's womb. Even if the next day or year or decade, you find yourself in prison wondering what you were dancing about.
I said there is no explanation, no excuse, as such, for the absence. But there a practice to make it more human. That is to share our absence with others and let them share theirs with us. To hold on together the way Didi and Gogo do. To take care of each other, hoping that our own little sacrifices for and savings of each other, are signs of that for which we are sick with longing.
Here is "The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,Hoping it might be so.