o come, o come emmanuel: advent and confession...

Tomorrow Sunday, November 27, 2016 marks the start of Advent in the Christian tradition.  For
most of my days as a clergy person I have emphasized the spiritual practice of waiting during this season.  Early on, I was influenced by the wise Gertrud Mueller-Nelson.  Her book, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (1986), is my go-to primer on liturgical feast and fast days. As a Jungian-Roman Catholic educator, with children of her own and an active life of participation in a faith community, her insights are practical and profound. On Advent she notes:

It is Advent and, along with nature, we are a people waiting. Far out of the south, the winter light comes thin and milky. The days grow shorter and colder and the nights long. Try as we may, we cannot fully dismiss the fundamental feelings that lie deep at our roots, a mixture of feelings dark and sweet. Will the sun, the source of our life, ever return? Has the great light abandoned us? We are anxious from the separation and feel an obscure guilt. We know there are vague disharmonies that keep us at odds. But our longing for union is passionate. This year we want our Christmas to be different. We want to be touched this season - moved at a level the lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with a primal need. Like the receptive fields, we lie fallow and wanting. The dark, feminine, elusive quality of our receptivity is not helpless passivity. We are willing to receive the Spirit. We wait to be impregnated. "Drop down dew, O heavens, from above. Let the clouds rain forth the Just One. Let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior. (p. 60)

Since my first days of ordination, her guidance has shaped my preparation and instruction during Advent:  this is a feminine season of faith where we practice being pregnant and patient. Waiting is the discipline of the hour. "The more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry ... (because we sense that ) waiting is unpractical time, good for noting, yet mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming."

As in pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, backing, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of becoming and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a life of value. 

This year, however, without denigrating any of these truths, my heart is urging me to reclaim the equally ancient penitential nature of the Advent season. I had been feeling this all year long given the bravado and brutality of the Presidential campaign.  So much hubris bandied about in ugly and self-righteous ways without a hint of depth or insight. While driving 14+ hours to a wedding in Kentucky, however, we listened to Krista Tippett's conversation with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne wherein Mr. Brooks said:

I wrote this book where Augustine was central as was the awareness of sin that is central to Niebuhr — that we are more sinful than we think even when we think we’re taking the purest action, and we have to be aware of that sinfulness. But how do you talk about sin in modern America? I had gone on the Charlie Rose show... and talked about my book before it came out, and I had talked about the word “sin." I got an email from an editor in New York at a different publishing house, and he said, “I love the way you were talking about your book, but I didn’t like the way you used that word ‘sin.’ It’s a downer. Use the word ‘insensitive’ instead.” And so I forwarded his email to my editor at Random House — it was sort of a test of him — and he said, “Well, that’s why you’re writing the book, to redeem sin.” But then how do you talk about it?

You really can’t talk about “original sin.” People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of “disordered loves” which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them.

Disordered loves. Does that ever sound like the United States at this moment in our collective history? The texts for Sunday echo this truth like our Eucharistic anthem:  the prophet Isaiah raises up a vision of shalom on God's holy mountain where all people will live as kin, beating our swords into ploughshares; while the Gospel of Matthew speaks of a mysterious time of judgment that will come upon us like the flood of Noah's days. It is a dialogue we have long abandoned, a deep truth about how to live into a sacred balance that honors the reality of grace and wrestles with the sin within and among us. This moment in time is more than a passing season of insensitivity.  It is an era of sin writ large nourished on arrogance, denial and 

All the more reason to reclaim Advent's penitential emphasis alongside the spiritual practice of patience and waiting.  Tomorrow, during worship, my message is essentially an invitation to pilgrimage.  Let's learn - or relearn - how to confess our disordered loves - trust God's quiet grace on the road of repentance - and awaken ourselves to the presence of the Lord in the most unlikely places.  Station One on this Advent journey offers people a seed.  All I could find were fennel seeds so that will suffice as an object lesson.  The invitation of Advent is to turn away from the mega-promises and addictions to bigger is better and choose to trust that something so small when planted - and nourished and cultivated - can bring us blessing. We want to challenge ALL in the injustices of this hour. We want to repent from ALL our sinful ways and redeem ALL our wounds, but that is just not going to happen.  Consequently, because we want it big and we want it all right now, we slip into despair or rage or shame or blame and become what we hate:  immobilized people of privilege who are masters of convincing ourselves that depression is really divine contemplation. 

Advent teaches that is a self-indulgent lie that we must confess and turn away from:  how is the season to trust the folly of the Cross.  Most of us want to gaze sentimentally upon Christ's cradle, but Advent tells us the Cross is always our destination.  So, this year, despite my feelings and decades of training, I'm going to enter Advent as a journey into confession. "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."


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