Monday, December 15, 2008

Lighten Up

Scripture mentioned today:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

You will have noticed that we are giving Advent its penitential voice. The poem which gives us our first words in liturgy sets the stage for the same opening penitential rite that we use in Lent. Yes, that’s new this year, a simple recognition that the purple of Advent is the same purple of Lent—while opening with confession is for us a new way to make that point, that point is an ancient one: Advent is a little Lent, a time of honest appraisal of how we need the redemption that we will celebrate soon.

And as Lent has its fourth Sunday, called “Refreshment Sunday”, a kind of “lighten up” day during a season of alleged self-discipline (think of Mountain Day here at Williams College), so Advent has its third Sunday, called Gaudete Sunday in the medieval church, from the first word in the Latin introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice…” That means it’s no accident that our second reading, from another Pauline letter, pushes the same message, “Rejoice always…” It’s on this third Sunday that the pink candle is lit in the wreath, conveying the “lighten up” theme.

It’s worth asking how well that cuts the mustard of our actual Advent. Are you having a penitential season? Do you need lightening-up?

Yes, given the economy, chances are that at least you’re having a more restrained, more reflective, Advent than usual. But is that penitence? What is penitence?

When in doubt, consult the Catechism. Prayer Book, page 857: “What is penitence? In penitence, we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.”

I’m not sure how many of the 12 steps of recovery that definition covers, but this question prompted me to get off my duff and go to the parish library to where AA keeps its stack of hardworn “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”. Those books are just as loved and dog-eared and loose in the spine as any Prayer Book in your pew. What I read there makes me think that what the church means by penitence embraces most, if not all, of the twelve steps that help restore the health and freedom of addicts.

In penitence, we admit that we are addicted to being in control (or being out of control), addicted to blaming others (or blaming ourselves), addicted to the practice of too much responsibility or too little.

In penitence, we acknowledge our need for God, for God to make right what we cannot make right, for God to show us what we can make right and by grace make us able to do it.

In penitence, we come out of our shells—out of our subway anonymity, our noses buried in our own preoccupations—to have confirmed for us our need of true community, membership in a body of vital organs each needing the others, each open to the mind of Christ.

All this penitential theme sounds counter-cultural to the Advent agenda set by the world, the flesh, and the devil. But it is the Advent agenda of the Christian Church that hears the Good News of God in Jesus Christ and, trained by the Spirit, wants not just to hear the Word, but do it.

Whether or not you’re having a consciously penitential Advent, you may need lightening up. A little yeast to leaven the lump of your grieving. The flame of the Christ-light to pierce your darkness, if you’re depressed. The courage to let go the old compulsions that drive you into the ground and notice newer simpler ways to exchange a friendly Christmas for a frantic one. Permission to sit still and in the silence know God.

Our readings evoke this Advent lightening. Isaiah sings a hymn of joy at his anointing by God to a life of creative responsibility, the very passage Jesus was handed to read that day he visited the synagogue at Capernaum and announced his public ministry.

And what is promised to us, in this Advent of global recession? “A garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Promised in this ancient text that Jesus made his and ours is that there shall never fail in God’s creation the emergence of such power as causes the earth to bring forth its shoots, power of redemption and resurrection that “will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

What is promised to us, in this Advent of facing our responsibilities? St. Paul says it clearly: God does not expect anything of us without making it possible for us. “The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this,” he insists.

And what more is promised to us, this Advent when no one knows the first thing about how to set right a world gone wrong? John’s Gospel gives us a case study in not-knowing today, in John the Baptist: his contemporaries couldn’t figure out who he was. Next Sunday, Luke’s Gospel will give us another case study in not-knowing, when young Mary is puzzled by what is told her by the angel Gabriel and asks, “How can this be?”

We are promised, in Advent, that our confusions are not futile. They are part of a giving-birth, prelude to transition, revealing of what for a time is hidden. Albert Schweitzer catches this promise in what he says about the mystical way of Christ:

"He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side; He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is."