Today is Ash Wednesday …
in order to more readily appreciate the gift of life;
in order to more readily embrace all our possibilities;
in order to courageously offer our vulnerability.
My thanks to Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, the author of this inspirational poem, and to Table Manna, the blog where I discovered it:
and to stardust you shall return.
The breath of God breathes within you.
only to cling to dust that has no breath.
you need to return to it.
but you can free yourself from trying.
What separates you from the world’s flesh?
become an earthling.
shed all that shrouds your light.
and to stardust you shall return.
Advent is coming to its crescendo …
when heavenly choirs will sing …
and the stable will stir with the raw sounds of new life …
and even so,
I am still acutely aware
that Christmas has not yet come.
Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the church calendar. What can I say, I always cheer for the underdog; and Advent is sort of the underdog of the church calendar. It always seems to get shortchanged by a culture that begins selling and celebrating Christmas while I’m still answering the door to Trick-or-Treaters.
But I will not be deterred! Every year, it is almost my battle cry: I will not skip Advent! I will honor the season of waiting by, you know, WAITING! I will listen to the voices of prophets! I will pay attention to the longing and the yearning, and not simply give in to the voices crying out for instant gratification! I will not be sucked in to a consumer mentality, but will find creative ways of giving of myself and giving sacrificially.
Each year, I answer these challenges with a sliding-scale of success: some years I honor Advent better than other years.
But this year, I have no trouble entering into an Advent state-of-mind. Advent means “coming”; it signals change. It is a time of waiting and hope, of expectation and anticipation, and – sometimes – of uncertainty and anxiety.
No problem. I’m there.
This year, just before Advent began, the session of the congregation I serve finished 4 months of honest, prayerful, difficult budget conversations. And they decided that the best way to be faithful disciples of Jesus and faithful stewards of their resources was to move from full-time pastoral leadership to part-time pastoral leadership.
Their decision invites me into a time of discernment: a time of prayer and listening for God’s guidance about how I am to move forward in the ministry to which God has called me. And this time of discernment brings with it all of those things that are characteristic of the season of Advent: waiting, hope, expectation, anticipation, and (sometimes) uncertainty and anxiety.
It also calls forth the question: How do we wait?
What do we do in Advent that helps us make peace with the uncertainty … and frees us to focus on the hope?
I think the answer is: we remember.
Ancient peoples did not have the scientific knowledge that we have about our solar system. They did not know that the daylight hours grew shorter in the winter because of the earth’s position on its axis. The waning sunlight caused anxiety and uncertainty. Often, they lit huge bonfires on the longest night – the winter solstice – to remind themselves of the sun’s faithful appearance each morning and to comfort themselves with its warmth and light. Their antidote to anxiety was memory.
Isn’t that also what the Israelite prophets did? They spoke of the vision they had seen – a vision of the future that God was planning – and taught the people to trust that future by remembering God’s faithfulness in years and generations and centuries past. “How can we trust that God will save us and not abandon us?” the people ask. “Remember God’s mighty acts, God’s faithfulness throughout the generations,” reply the prophets.
From Isaiah 41: But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, l will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
This Advent season, I invite all of us to remember God’s faithfulness … and I invite us to be a prophetic voice – the voice crying out in the wilderness – to those who may have trouble remembering that God is forever faithful and will never abandon us. After all, that’s what we’re celebrating on December 25: Emmanuel, God-with-us. Perhaps in surprising and unexpected ways, but always with us.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Amen.
In honor of the great Irish holiday … I thought I’d share “Saint Brigid’s Prayer” with you. It is offered here with credit given to Beliefnet (where I found it) and Noirin Ni Riain.
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the Heavenly Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted,
I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
White cups of love I”d give them,
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around,
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women of God
There by the lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
I woke this morning to the ringing sound of (another) winter storm warning notification on my smartphone. It seems odd that in the midst of snowstorm after snowstorm across the country, we should quietly enter into February with its ancient promises of Spring.
The month of February was named for the Roman Februa festival, which was a time of ritual purification: a time of cleansing after a long and difficult winter.
The ancient Celts lit great bonfires for the festival of Imbolc (on or about February 2) which honored Brigid (something of a Mother Earth figure) and celebrated the lambing and lactation of the ewes.
Imbolc marked that the worst of the threat of winter had passed. Even though it was still too early for produce, the ancients no longer had to rely entirely on what was stored in the larder, as milk and eggs and butter began to return to the land (and their diets).
Many of these ancient celebrations of the seasons and of creation’s bounty have been incorporated into our “modern” religious understandings and practices.
the Candlemas celebration on February 2, when lighted candles replace the ancient bonfires;
the celebration of Groundhog day, which looks to the wisdom of the animals to announce the coming of Spring;
the Christian celebration of the presentation of Jesus in the temple (after the time of purification of Mary after childbirth), which is celebrated on February 2.
Though our supermarkets defy the seasonal logic of food and we perhaps think we no longer need the wisdom of the created world to help us navigate the seasons, still the promise of new life continues its long, slow work of gestation.
Though much of the country is still blanketed with winter weather (with still more to come) and though we may question that Spring is closer today than yesterday … still the days continue to lengthen.
Though the continued brutality of the cold may seem to suck our stamina, still the life-force of all creation continues to rise, unseen, like sap in the trees.
It is a good time to curl up and dream of the new life that will come. February, which among the priests of the ancient Celts was called the Poet’s Moon, is a time for inspiration: when the sacred fire of the Spirit is kindled within us.
I invite you to honor and celebrate these fleeting days in some way that feels natural and pleasurable to you.
Perhaps you could have your own celebration of milk and eggs by baking aChocolate Butter Cake.
Or perhaps you’re more comfortable as the activist than the cook. You might want to celebrate this season by working to protect our milk supply.
If you’re a poet at heart, then perhaps the best way to honor the Poet’s Moon is to write your own.