Friday, December 6, 2013

Armed with Light

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Both Christians and Jews display a certain ambivalence about the western Gregorian calendar. It’s good enough to do business in, but to assert spiritual identity we want a timeframe that has a divine foundation under it.

So our Jewish neighbors celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the autumn, and we Christians observe Advent in a more wintry season. Catch the images of darkness—they tumble out of the collect of the day, and are reinforced by our New Testament readings. Advent comes in the season of shortening days, and stands in contrast to Lent, the season of lengthening days. Darkness figures in all this, but even more is the value of light extolled. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is much about light, celebrating the inexhaustible supply of oil that lit the lamps of the Maccabees, a story representing the bottomless abundance of the grace of God. When the early Christians wanted to claim a time in the secular calendar to celebrate the sacred act of God taking on human flesh—the quintessential Christian story of the amazing grace of God-- they chose to colonize the old Roman festival of Sol Invictus, December 25th, the celebration of the unconquered Sun God. Light rules!

Darkness gets us into all sorts of mischief. We go bump in it. We go not gently into it, because of an inherent fear of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, a fear we seem to come by honestly as vulnerable human beings. Darkness, implies the apostle, is when people drink too much, not to mention nocturnal debauchery and licentiousness, or, for the less adventurous, quarreling and jealousy. Matthew has Jesus reach into the treasury of Hebrew (or Roman) proverbs to lift up the obvious: If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Which is to say about the darkness: it is the mischievous dangerous time for not-knowing because it is the time for not-seeing.

Thomas Edison greatly expanded our sensory curfew, and in time our great-grandparents mounted electrical devices on lamp posts and automobile fenders to penetrate the night. But a century later the grid is perhaps our most insecure national security risk, and nothing is more apocalyptic and soul-chilling than a city going dark, whether the cause is a tidal surge or a cyberterrorist hacking-in.

The young see their way clear to a vibrant night life as being essential to quality of life. While the night is still young to them, their elders have traded in the day for a cuddle under the goosedown, and a good book. Or just a good book.

Let’s not forget how last Sunday’s Gospel caught the moment when Jesus, from the gathering darkness around Golgotha, absolved his adversaries because they did not know what they were doing. Piercing our moral darkness, our spiritual aimlessness, is the first item of business on the agenda of Advent, as the season teaches us to pray, Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness , and put on the armor of light… that in the last day, when Jesus shall come again, we may rise to meet him in life immortal.

Armed with light, we are to see what is true and know what we do. In the poet Michael Hudson’s words, “The Son of Man has come and comes again, unfailing advent of unending grace; we tell the stories so that we may see the character of Incarnation’s face…The Son of Man has come and comes again to seek the deluged and the left-behind; we watch and wait and hope to recognize the face of Jesus in the present time.”

Recognition is the prize of Advent. Discovering just where the pearl of great price is to be found (and where it is not), recognizing when it’s time to beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, shopping lists into mission plans, convert obligations of the season into opportunities for the Spirit—that’s a successful Advent season, sparing us the distraction, exhaustion, and distress of wasting this short season engineering a perfect Christmas, as if such a thing existed or would be good for us if it did. Christians go counter-cultural and insist that we walk through Advent season preparing our hearts and homes to welcome the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ; not run through the month of December counting down the number of shopping days, the debit card balance, and our own store of peace and goodwill.

On earth, the daily news darkens as nations sink into senseless violence. In far-away places this Advent, chaos grips entire cities and countries caught in civil war. In other distant places, this season, countless people are left with nothing after the chaos of severe weather has swept over them, and their government fails to help them. Our own government fails to help bridge the widening gulf between rich and poor, expecting nothing more from the privileged while forcing the disadvantaged to get by with less and less. As our apocalyptic Gospel puts it so plainly today, one will be taken and one will be left.

The anguish of Advent fits us not as a license for kvetching and hand-wringing, but as spark and kindling of recognition, awareness, welcome of what we most need on this fragile earth: a leadership of heart, an open and sacred and fearless heart that in the time of Matthew’s Gospel writing was conveyed in the longing for the Messiah. In our democratic age, also ironically a time of deep disillusionment about democratically elected leaders, we sense that we ourselves must learn to become the Hanukkah oil. We ourselves—no one community or tribe or denomination or party, we ourselves in the widest sense of people of good will willing and able to cooperate together—we must learn to welcome the grace, the messianic energy of God, cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

Canon Pam Mott draws our attention to author Ronald Heifetz’s notion of needing to have a sacred heart for leadership. "The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments. Leading with an open heart means you could be at your lowest point, abandoned by your people and entirely powerless, yet remain receptive to the full range of human emotions without going numb, striking back or engaging in some other defense... Without keeping your heart open, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to fashion the right response or to succeed or to come out whole."

The sacred heart, the open heart, brings to mind all that is Jesus: his Word, his action, his Passion, his promise to abide in each believer’s heart and to be the pulse of the servant community, the outreaching love the world needs.

It is through the sacred heart, the open heart, that Jesus leads us to find our own paths of leadership. Armed with light, we are to see what is true and know what we do.

(The first quotation is from Michael Hudson’s “Songs for the Cycle: Fresh Hymn Texts”, page 4. The second is from “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, page 227.)