Where Is Hope?

Scripture can be found here

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and that has stirred some powerful memories for me. Many years ago a friend invited a group of women to her house in the wilds of the Town of Binghamton for a celebration of this season. We began outside in her enormous front yard, in the bitter cold, where my friend had tossed an old tire. As we began, my friend offered a meditation—a selection from a book. She read:

Pre-Christian peoples who lived far north, and who suffered the archetypal loss of life and light with the disappearance of the sun, had a way of wooing back life and hope. Primitive peoples do not separate the natural phenomena from their religious or mystical yearning, so nature and mystery remained combined. As the days grew shorter and colder, and the sun threatened to abandon the earth, these ancient people suffered the sort of guilt and separation anxiety, which we also know. Their solution was to bring all ordinary action and daily routine to a halt. They gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools. They removed the wheels from their carts and wagons, festooned them with greens and lights, and brought them indoors to hang in their halls. They brought the wheels indoors as a sign of a different time, a time to stop and turn inward. They engaged the feelings of cold and fear and loss. Slowly, slowly, they wooed the sun-god back. And light followed darkness. Morning came earlier. The festivals announced the return of hope after primal darkness.[i]

The reading finished, we engaged in a kind of modern-day re-enactment of the ancient ritual: we festooned that old tire with pine-boughs and other winter greens, and placed large pillar candles in it. My friend touched the match to the first Advent candle, and we lit the fire of hope.

Advent is a less-ancient celebration than the one described in that meditation, but it is still ancient. It has been celebrated since at least the 5th century, and its focus was most clearly articulated in the 12th century: a commemoration prior to Christmas of “the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time.”[ii] While outside these doors (and in many of our homes), Christmastime is most definitely here, within this space we hold back, just a bit, and try to remember the first, live into the second, and prepare for that third coming of Christ.

Each year the first Sunday in Advent offers us scripture passages that conjure up the kind of anxiety that caused ancient peoples to take the wheels off their wagons and hunker down in the warmth and security of their homes. Now, in the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus talking about that third coming, the return of Christ at the culmination of all things and the end of time. Jesus talks of signs in the sun, moon, and stars. He talks of roaring seas and real fears. The very heavens are shaken before the Son of Man comes in glory on the clouds. 

I can relate to Jesus’ end-of-days mood, what with the release just over a week ago of Volume II of the National Climate Assessment. This is a congressionally mandated report on global climate change, and its findings are sobering: among other things, it concludes that “human health and safety” and American “quality of life” is “increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”[iii] It warns, “Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”[iv] That’s another way of saying, more and fiercer storms, more and more devastating wildfires, more and more severe droughts and floods.  

This week, in our session meeting, we read together portions of the Presbyterian Church’s Brief Statement of Faith, and all of us were struck with a passage reminding us that

we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,

accept lies as truth,

exploit neighbor and nature,

and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.[v]

There are signs, alright. The planet entrusted to our care is crying out to us, and it will continue in distress unless and until we find the will to change course.  

But Jesus’ words are not all dire warning. In fact, “warning” can be a gift that opens in us the space for change and the room for a new view. “When you see these things taking place,” Jesus says, “you know that the kingdom of God is near.” And this is the reminder we need us that the kingdom of God is as near as our next breath. Christ comes—in history, yes, and in the future, we pray, but also, and most urgently, today. In that second coming, Christ comes daily, into our hearts, and that means, this very minute. Now.

Theologian Richard Rohr has said that “a Christian is simply one who has learned to see Christ everywhere.”[vi] That includes: all throughout creation, in the beauty and power of the natural world, such as a flame flickering in the darkness. It also includes: in other people… not only people who, with us, are searching for Christ everywhere. It includes people of all kinds, all faiths, all countries. And, crucially for times of anxiety and fear, it includes: within us. Alongside us. Christ is our boon companion, who understands us best, loves us most fiercely, remains with us most faithfully.

Christ comes daily into our hearts, and is at the heart of this community. Even in the times when all we can see are shadows, Christ is present to kindle in us a flame of hope.

That flame has already been kindled; as pastor-poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes wrote this week, you only have to know how to look for it: 

You have to know how to look
and where
among the distress of the nations,
the fear and foreboding,
to see the little fig leaves,
the subtle bursts of possibility,
God's faint but certain emergences,
the little gracelets that abound
and clue you in 
on what is coming upon the world.
Look for the child who endures,
the woman who persists,
the beauty that subverts, 
the love that sneaks in.
Watch for the free, outlandish life
that is not yet done arriving.
“That's just the way it is”
isn't the way it is. 
Look till you see.
Dance till the music
can't help but start.
Don't miss a single birdsong.
You may have to silence yourself,
shed earbuds, turn off the TV, 
and the one in your head.
The mercy that does not pass away
shows itself to those who are watching.
In the gray streets, 
among the rows and columns,
the mystery keeps happening
and happening
and happening.

Hope is here: God has already kindled its flame. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986), 63.

[ii] Philip H. Pfatteicher, “Journey Into the Heart of God: Living Into the Liturgical Year,” Oxford University Press, 2013).

[iii] “New federal climate assessment for U. S. released: Report highlights impacts, risks, and adaptations to climate change.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, November 23, 2018.

[iv] Wehner, M. F.; Arnold, J. R.; Knutson, T.; Kunkel, K. E.; LeGrande, A. N. (2017). Wuebbles, D. J.; Fahey, D. W.; Hibbard, K. A.; Dokken, D. J.; Stewart, B. C.; Maycock, T. K., eds. Droughts, Floods, and Wildfires (Report). Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment. 1. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program. pp. 231–256. 

[v] Lines 33-38, “A Brief Statement of Faith,” Book of Confessions: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part I, 303.

[vi] Richard Rohr, “The Universal Christ,” Daily Meditation December 2, 2018, http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/747AD23D800FC10C2540EF23F30FEDED/FA2533665300F6CDC68C6A341B5D209E.

[vii] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Be Alert,” Unfolding Light, https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/6zsjmjl7zfg68a68cxhx5jp588s87b.