This time of year is always complicated and the busyness which consumes us feels unreal and disconnected. Often, we’re told our celebrations for Christmas aren’t going to plan as they should, by those in the shopping malls, on social media and by those cooking up huge meals and wrapping presents for the anticipated company of family and friends.
I recently read a sermon by Cathrine Taylor, preaching in Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, Blacksburg, VA, USA in 2012 and I am following in her footsteps for this my own reflection. It was a sermon written immediately after the Sandy Hook primary school shootings, when the world turned to ashes and dust overnight, and the sorrow of all the senseless deaths and loss of loved ones, overwhelmed the families and the nation. The world was horrified. How could anyone do such a thing?
Today we’re confronted by the awful deaths and loss in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and in Ukraine and Russia, in Sudan and elsewhere. We all know a neighbour or a friend who can describe the impact of such losses personally.
In addition, the unexpected loss of loved ones, tragic accidents, family conflict, broken minds and bodies, illness and endings, bring us to our knees with grief. How can we be joyful in such a strange and unfamiliar landscape, in such dreadful circumstances? Our emotions are not joyful; instead, they are filled with grief and lament, anger and shock, resistance and refusal, brokenness and pain. We can no longer remember the shape and colour of ‘joy’.
We look to the stars, to try and find the one star showing us the way, but we don’t see anything clearly anymore, there is nothing left to show us the way; we look down at the earth and see only darkness and loneliness. Where is the light, Lord, you promised would put out the darkness? I can’t see it or feel its warmth. I can only feel the cold, barren wasteland of sorrow.
The well-known poet, Ann Weems wrote a poem after the death of her son in an accident only an hour after his 21st birthday. She went silent for a long time after his death, and her poetry written during her grieving was angry and resentful. Eventually, with encouragement she found the capacity to write again so it could be shared and she said:
The sky has fallen and no one seems to notice. Mountains have fallen into the sea and people are oblivious. Everywhere I look there is nothing but devastation and yet, everyone goes about their business as usual. O God, my life is destroyed, but people go to the bank and to the store. They eat and drink and I crumple under the weight of my heart….please O God, rebuild my world. Have mercy on me, for I am all alone. No one sees that the sky has fallen. No one, O God, no one, but you. All knowing God you are the only one who can put the stars back in place. Take pity on me and hold up the sky.
But then, she manages to turn the poem around and by the end, she concludes:
I will walk by the river of hope, and you will find me there, and you will reach out your hand and push the heavens back into place and I will kneel and give thanks, for you will be with me. You will put the stars back into the sky.
Our capacity to see and hear beyond our grief and breaking hearts is the Advent hope, love, joy and peace given to us in this season. We are reminded about it in the readings and in our studies, and we are offered this hope as a blessing from God. So, we know we are supposed to be feeling Advent joy, but it certainly doesn’t come at our command. And it can feel like it will never surface again and be real in our lives.
I have also been reading the work of another poet, called Julia Esquival, a Guatemalan poet who was writing in the 1980s when the rightwing military government, propped up by the US and the CIA, was ‘disappearing’ the young people in their thousands because they were protesting the regime’s tyranny, totalitarianism and oppression. She wrote a poem called, ‘Being Threatened with Resurrection’. She too, comes to the same place, the same conclusion, as she reflects and prays on their grief and loss at a generation of young people, including her own friends and family being killed, and she says:
Accompany us then on this vigil,
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know,
how marvellous it is to live,
threatened with Resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to already know oneself,
This is true Advent glory, hope beyond beginnings and endings, it is hope beyond death and grief. It’s also worth remembering when Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians to remind them: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!’ that he was writing from a prison cell. God’s kingdom gives us a different view, a different perspective and trust in God that all will be well in God. The reading we’ve had this evening from Isaiah, carries the same theme:
For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me,’ Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these might forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49: 13-15
We come to that place where God is present, the mix of past, present and future are bundled up in the baby Jesus, born as one of us, laid on hay in the stone manger, without wealth, status, safety or certainty. We can imagine the shape of his cheek in our palms, the downy hair on his head, still damp from birthing, the newborn smell of milky skin and the warmth of the new babe tightly wrapped, sleeping, watched over by Mary and Joseph; and God rents the world open wide to give shape to this being of God, made flesh in the world, midwifed by God and by us; and we know nothing will ever be the same again. God knows our loss, God lost God’s only Son who was killed unjustly. God knows the horror of betrayal, conflict and the sound of lamentation. God wept in the darkness of the loss. And now God says:
See the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them and be their God; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. Revelation 21:3-4
We come to where we started, stepping out of shadowed times and lives, living into Advent hope-filled joy, real in spite of grief and loss, and we can truly sing wildly, joyful songs of praise, loud enough and sure enough to break our hearts as God binds them up as a sacrifice of tears and grief, and heals them, holding our memories safe so we can let them go and live into God’s loving embrace; where tears turn to gladness and the sound of joy is the only sound we can hear. The Lord be with you.
A sermon by Catherine Taylor, Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, Blacksburg, VA.
Ann Weems https://nextchurch.net/tag/ann-weems/
Julia Esquival Threatened with Resurrection. Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan 1982:59-61