Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Waiting or Longing?
Advent is a time of waiting we are told, waiting and preparing for the arrival of God in our midst, God with us and God in us: Emmanuel.
But it isn’t only a time of waiting. Perhaps it’s just me, but waiting all by itself, just waiting, I find comprehensible only in terms of busses. It’s different here in the Berkshires of course, where public transportation is so scarce and most of us came to church – and go every place really – by car. But I’ve lived in a city pretty much my whole life and busses are simply what I think of when I think of waiting. Many of you must know what I mean — that process whereby you stand at the bus stop and you wait-and-wait-and-wait-and wait and then, more often than not, just at the point when you give up hope, when you peer that final time at the horizon formed by the curve of the road and – again – see no bus; just then, when you step back under the bus-stop roof and accept the fact that the bus is never coming, at that moment, the bus appears – that great gold stretch of its front facing number and destination shining like an angels halo…salvation!
That, to me, is what waiting is. And perhaps it is what Advent is in a way too. But I hope not – or at least not only. Again, there’s a chance that my understanding of this process has been warped by too many hours spent on too many streets, waiting for too many busses, but for me at least, waiting seems like a less than ideal lens through which to view these four precious weeks before Christmas. It just feels too static to lead anywhere surprising – a state that is both started and stopped by the whim of some agency entirely outside of myself that leaves me powerless: The Bus. The boss. Administrative delay…It feels almost purgatorial, in fact, waiting: a realm of who-knows-how-long stoppedness, of extended pause or temporary death.
But longing – ah! Now longing is something else altogether. Longing ignites, rather than stops, and expands rather than shrinks. It is based on the same premise as waiting, of course, because both are responses to the absence of something. But while waiting is passive, longing is active. And while waiting belongs to the mind and so is somewhat superficial — an irritant, a delay — longing belongs to the heart and so both comes from and leads to life.
We do in fact wait for the bus. But we don’t wait for love, right? We long for it. And we long for healing. And we long for God.
Longing then – that deep, sometimes painful and fiery expansion of the heart in response to the absence, or the lack of another seems to me to be a far richer way to enter and then move through Advent. Because it is grounded in love–right?– in our deepest heart’s desire. And so it expands us. And helps us to become. And brings us back to the place, every time and every time true, of our own incompleteness, our own essential and fundamental need for God…
No longer passive recipients of some system’s whim as we feel ourselves to be when we wait at the airport after our flight has been cancelled, for example, or in line at the DMV, longing returns our agency through a new and vigorous state of inner activity. It is birthed in us whenever we touch into our desire for the kind of fullness that we have already tasted and want more than anything in the world to taste again – the kind of fullness which God alone can provide. And this doubleness, this longing for what has already happened, and for what we know we need to happen anew, empowers us to embrace the truth of what is now with hope, and courage, and faith and love.
Jesus said: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” And all this is happening now in a way, right? Climate change is upon us; racism and violence and oppression continue to run rampant in ways large and small; despair is growing among the young; loneliness among the elderly; an ominous new variant is emerging —again!— and, across the globe, people continue to flee the violence and poverty of their own countries in ways that often lead to death.
Waiting through all this would require us to shut down, to close our eyes and block our ears and frantically will it all away. And we all do this sometimes – of course we do, because it’s terrifying, and too much, and we are so small and so afraid. But Christ calls us to something different, I believe. And moving from passive waiting to active longing during for these four short weeks of Advent, is a step in the right direction.
Christ has come. And Christ is coming. Longing links these two statements of Christian truth, and armed only with its power we become able again to see clearly the horrors of the present in growing trust that something new will be born from it.
Longing then is the path I am choosing this Advent. Longing tethered not only to the here and now of this world that is so desperate and full of fear and exclusion and blindness, but also to the goodness and mercy and paradoxical strength of God who has come, and is coming again to us right now… slowly, quietly, full of mystery and surprise and life….
But how can we reliably travel there, from the locked down space of waiting to the wide-open realm of longing? Well, through prayer, I think mostly. Prayer grounds and corrals and deepens our longing – and expresses it too, at least in part. And, through God’s grace, prayer also, if only occasionally and always fleetingly, relieves our longing, filling us with the truth of that which we long for, and so allowing us to long more – to enter that state of active desiring with love and then to stay there, maybe for just a moment or two, and feel its power work on our hearts and in the world around us too.
Sometimes, I find it helps to write out the prayer of my heart so that I can more clearly see and more deeply feel the real and specific depths of my longing, and I invite you today to consider taking on the practice, this advent – setting aside just a few minutes each day, perhaps, to sit in silence, and sink, and then to write down the words of your heart’s truest longings. You may find yourself coming up with whole paragraphs. Or you may find yourself coming up with a single word, or with a string of unrelated words – it doesn’t matter. The words are yours, that’s the thing – words coming from your true heart’s desire – and also addressed to your true heart’s desire – words of longing, both powerful and true.
In the hopes of encouraging you towards this practice, I’ve brought along a prayer of this kind written by one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor. And I am hoping you might settle into yourselves for a couple of minutes now, and maybe even close your eyes, and receive the words of her longing with the ears of your heart, and then, in the silence afterwards, ask yourself: what do I long for today – or who do I long for…?
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.
I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way…
I do not wish to presume. I want to love.
Oh God please make my mind clear.
Please make it clean.
Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.
I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them… I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.
Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me.
— Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal