A Quiet Christmas Advent Wreath

John 1:1–5; 14

One:    This is our hope, the thing for which we wait:2015-quiet-christmas-1
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.

Many: The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness does not overcome it.

One:    And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
For such a thing as this, we wait.

 

The gospel of John tells of darkness and light. Today I stood in the memorial garden with a cup of coffee, steam rolling off it in the chill, as the sun set below the tree line, wondering about darkness and light. It is easy to forget about the rhythms of the earth; so easy to turn on the light overhead.

While the poetry of dark nights is not true for those our friends in Australia, for us, here in Illinois, the earth groans along with us for the light to shine in the darkness. The flowers have tucked their petals away for the winter, and the trees have dropped their leaves. Only the pine trees remember the fullness of the sun, and the heat of summer. And so, we give them places of honor in our sanctuary, reminding us of the light for which we long on these dark days.

Advent, this time of waiting, is the darkness that makes the light of Christmas that much brighter. In the same way that artists Caravaggio and Rembrandt create tension between light and shadow in order to draw out form and figure, the tension between waiting for Christ and arriving at the manger with him allows us to draw near to God, to prepare for the mystery of Christmas.[1] Advent is the darkness to Christmas’ light, just as fire is the heat to ice’s cold, or sweet is the sugar to sour’s tang. Fire-and-Ice, Sweet-and-Sour, Darkness-and-Light… it is here in the holy tension that we dwell.

Classically trained singers call it chiaroscuro or a bright-dark tone, every sung note offering a bright light at the edge as well as a round dark quality in the middle; this bright-dark tone having a complex texture of vocal resonances. These are chiaroscuro days—light/dark days—from the Italian chiaro meaning light and scuro meaning dark.[2] These are Chiaroscuro light/dark days when our homespun Quiet Christmas service is punctuated by light and dark; happening just on the cusp of the longest night.

The winter solstice happens next Monday night into Tuesday; as dawn unfolds on Tuesday morning, the sun will rise just a little earlier than it did the day before, offering us a return of light in these dark days. In these light/dark days, we put up Christmas lights to ward off the dark side of darkness, and pour cups of hot tea or light candles or throw dazzling evening parties to chase off the long nights together.

When I was in High School, I went on a summer caving trip—spelunking as they say—and crawled deep inside the earth in caves across Indiana and Kentucky, down into Tennessee and Georgia. I loved the smell of the clay, Indiana limestone carved away by water that flowed through those caverns for centuries, or probably longer, and the quiet persistent drip of water drawing stalactites down from the ceiling. A few boy scouts from youth group were talking about their own upcoming spelunking and it reminded me of all that: the earthy aroma, the drama of adventure, and most of all, the darkness.

In those days, there was something comforting about the darkness of a cave, the absence of light being such a novelty in our neon bright-lights and never-sleeping world. There was something awe-inducing about turning out the lights in a cave, and everyone straining to see-but-not-see their own hand right in front of their face. No matter how long you wait for your eyes to adjust, deep in a cave, there is no light to get adjusted to, just dazzling darkness and the sound of your heartbeat.

These days, I know that darkness has a more nuanced power: one person who was held in a dark room against his will said “How do I explain to a person that just sitting in an empty, dark room hurts? Someone asks you, well, why does it hurt? Does your body hurt? “Yes,” he said “your body hurts. But it’s more than that. It’s like this mental—like you’re almost confused. There were times when I’d wake up and it was just so dark; like I would wake up not even remembering what I was.”[3]

We gather here, maybe, because we have known darkness that hurts, true darkness, metaphorical dark days of the soul, long nights when we can hardly await the joy that God promises will come in the morning. Even for those of us who have not been held captive in the darkness have been captivated by it; in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark Barbara Brown Taylor said of the darkness: The dangerousness of the dark is like the power of gravity; no one can say exactly how it works, but everyone agrees on it.”[4]

These are the days for learning to walk in the dark, indeed. This morning, first light was at 6:42 a.m., and my cup of coffee with the sunset was hours ago. Yet, darkness is not always what we might think: within days after going blind, one man said, “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet, the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt the light gushing forth,” he said, “gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how the light wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidable there. The source of the light,” he said, “is not in the outer world; the light dwells where life also dwells; within ourselves.”[5]

This passage from John—the one we read together—is our chance to consider this light that dwells within us—and beyond us—and from the very beginning of beginnings. It speaks of this light that has been, since the beginning, and yet is with us in the flesh, then and even now. It is in lieu of a birth narrative—there are no mangers or shepherds or magi in John’s beginning.  Instead, there is only Word and God and being and light.

Yet, is God not also in the darkness? Moses saw God in the bright fiery light of the burning bush as well as in the thick dark cloud at the top of Mt. Sinai. God our light who shines in the darkness is equally our God who is the dazzling darkness, where “the darkness becomes partially known through the light and at the same time the light is better understood through darkness.”[6]

Tonight, we gather in this light-and-dark place, where God’s presence is in the quiet darkness, and in the somehow silent light. Tonight’s service hovers around the lighting of the Advent Candle, and explores these tensions of Advent and Christmas; the endless waiting, the search for stillness, the deep longing, and the nearness of God. And we will end tonight at the messy manger, a little farther down the Christmas story than is liturgically appropriate—according to our theological education, we are never supposed to light the Christ candle during Advent because it helps us to suspend the drama of our sacred story—holding back from telling the best parts until Christmas eve has arrived in all her glory, but Jo Forrest has assured me—and she’s trustworthy—that she would guard against any liturgical police who might arrive to stop us from mentioning our manger full of hay, and a baby so unlikely to be born there, to dwell among us in all our mess and chaos.

This, our Quiet Christmas, is the place where we are invite God into the mess of our own lives, heartbreak and hardship, so that God might make order out of the chaos, and utter meaning into what might otherwise be an empty, formless void. Here, we soak in God’s story of Grace in an ungraceful world, seeking God in the light and in the darkness. So welcome to you and to yours, to this Quiet Christmas, where you are invited to settle into God’s light and God’s dazzling darkness that is made known in the cracks and brokenness of our fragile mortal lives.

As each reader lights a candle, listen tonight for God to call you by name, for as the prophet Isaiah says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord your God, who calls you by name.

The Advent Journey, by Jan Richardson[7]

The Advent journey begins in darkness.  I am familiar with this terrain.  A child of the night, a lover of stars, it is the darkening hours that I feel most at home.  Yet often we are fed the untruth that darkness is synonymous with evil and that all that is light is bright and good.  At best this belief hinders us from the gifts present in darkness; at worst, it encourages prejudices, however subconscious.

We require darkness for birth and growth: the seed in the ground, the seed in the womb, the seed in our souls.  In the darkness lie possibilities for intimacy, for rest, for healing.  Although we may find journeying in the darkness fearsome or confusing, it teaches us to rely on senses other than sight.  In the process we learn that darkness bears the capacity for good, even as evil can take place in broad daylight.

We often find ourselves at times in the dark – good or evil or in between, of our own or another’s making.  Our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us; whether it is the darkness that asks for justice to bring the dawn of hope to a night of terror, or for a candle to give warmth to the shadows, or for companions to hold us in our uncertainty and unknowing, or for a blanket to enfold us as we wait for the darkness to teach us what we need to know.

In these Advent days of darkness and waiting, it may indeed seem that God’s face is hidden from our sight.  But the sacred presence is there, breathing in the shadows.  This is when we learn to trust senses other than sight and to seek the face of God beneath our fingertips.

In the darkness, let us begin to gather the light.
Await God, as we light the Candle of Waiting.

Knitting in the Dark, by Nora Murphy[8]

I like to knit in the dark season. With the blinds drawn, I can observe whatever is going on inside. When the boys are in the living room arguing about the rules of cribbage, knitting gives me a chance to sit back and see if they can figure it out themselves.

When someone stops by for a visit, knitting opens up a conversation that drifts to daily events and gossip. When Diego gets out his water colors, I knit, and we share the joy of watching beauty emerge.

Sometimes I knit in silence. This is the silence that comes when the boys are downstairs watching TV, Diego is writing in the studio above the garage, and I don’t have to start dinner for another fifteen minutes. This is when the yarn moves by itself.

The rhythm of pure energy and creation fills the room until the knitter, the yarn, and the darkness disappear into the radiant light of the heart.

In chaos or in silence, knitting opens up space for me to soften and find the brilliant spaces inside the dark. Inside this darkness, I follow the shafts of light, discovering a mysterious world of connections that pull me back to the time when women first began to make string, to weave, and then to knit.

I am no longer only an American mom and novice knitter, but a member of a clan of women who have taken up tools and fiber to sustain their families and honor the earth for millennia. Sometimes the connection is so strong that I want to knit all day, all night, all winter long.

In the darkness, gather the light.
Await God, as we light the Candle of Stillness.

Sustain Me in the Coming Then, by Ted Loder[9]

Hear this prayer as an invitation draw near to God; for God draws near to you.

O God, empty me of angry judgments,
and aching disappointments,
and anxious trying,
and breathe into me
something like quietness
and confidence,
that the lion and the lamb in me
may lie down together
and be led by a trust
as straightforward as a little child.

Catch my pride and doubt off guard
That, at least for the moment,
I may sense your presence
and your caring,
and be surprised
by a sudden joy
rising in my now
to sustain me in the coming then. Amen.

Every Riven Thing, by Christian Wiman[10]

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

In the darkness, let us gather the light.
Await God, as we light the Candle of Drawing Near

First Coming, by Madeline L’Engle[11]

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

In the darkness, let us gather the light.
Await God, as we light the Candle of God-with-us.

This is the gift of light; that we await Christ’s presence among us. And this is the mystery; that even as we wait, Christ dwells among us, and even still, we wait. We wait for the days when we will learn war no more, we wait for the days when stillness might replace incessant busy-ness, we wait for the darkness, and we wait for the light.

And, in the great waiting that is Advent, week by week, day by day, as the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer, the candles we light become brighter, and the tension between the light and the darkness becomes the way towards a deeper mystery of God whose being with us is as tangible as the pew beneath us and the person beside us. And, in such mystery, God calls to us again, reminding us that our sacred story is a messy one, one of mangers and God made known even when there is no room at the inn.

For this, we wait. For this, we give thanks. For this, we let our light join with one another and grow. Tonight, we offer an invitation. A chance to light a candle: a quiet candle that honors your place in the light and darkness, a candle that honors the mystery of God that dwells among you, that speaks of longing and waiting and hope.


Works Cited

[1] Gerald Ward from The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art p 104.
[2] James Stark from Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy, p 34.
[3] https://serialpodcast.org/season-two/1/dustwun/transcript
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark.
[5] Quoted within Barbara Brown Taylor, “Light without Sight: A Different Way of Seeing” Christian Century April 2, 2014.
[6] Kariatlis, Philip. “’Dazzling darkness’: the mystical or theophanic theology of St Gregory of Nyssa” Phronema, 27 no 2 2012, p 99-123.
[7] Jan L. Richardson from Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas.
[8] Nora Murphy from Knitting the Threads of Time: Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft.
[9] Ted Loder from Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle.
[10] Christian Wiman from Every Riven Thing: Poems.
[11] Madeline L’Engle from The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle.