1 Advent, Year C: Entering the Darkness to See the Light--Of Light-Up Shoes, Friendship with God and Wittgenstein
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
1 Advent, Year B
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
I’ve got three daughters, and the trouble with children, and specifically their blessed little feet, is that they grow—not like fig leaves, but like weeds. No sooner do you get them into one pair of shoes that fit than they have already outgrown them—to their great delight and our great despair. Not long ago, one of the little fashionistas returned home with the latest and greatest in running shoe design—light-up shoes. Jump up and down hard enough and the toes of the shoes are supposed to twinkle like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Proudly showing off her recent purchase, my daughter promptly started stomping around the living room, jumping higher and higher. But it was all to no avail. There was no light. Were they broken? Defective? Designed for a five year-old with Michael Jordan-esque jumping ability?
“Come here,” I said and ushered her into the bathroom. We shut the door, cleared a suitable jumping area amongst the bath toys and discarded luffas, and turned off the light. She jumped, and sure enough when her feet hit the floor, the shoes twinkled—dappling the walls and ceiling with purple, blue, red, and yellow lights. It’s not that the shoes weren’t shining before we retreated into the darkness of the bathroom. It’s that we couldn’t see the light because it was too bright. It had to get dark for us to see the light.
In the season of Advent, we practice as a church family, turning down the lights so that we can see the real light, the true light, the light of Christ shining in the darkness. In a media saturated culture of noise, and distraction, we practice turning down the lights, being still, being silent, that we might begin again to perceive the light of the one who is all beauty, truth, and goodness shining in the darkness.
If you think about it, our lectionary readings enact this very same process. Advent has this double focus—the coming birth of Jesus and the second coming of Christ at the eschaton. Advent readings often sound a lot more like the end of the world than the celebration of the birth of a savior. Odd, don’t you think? One way to understand Advent apocalypticism to as something akin to what my daughter and I did in order to see the light of her shoes. Remember, the light was always shining, it is our poor visual apparatus that prevented us from seeing the twinkling lights that poured off her shoes every time she hopped up and down. In our readings for Advent, the world goes dark—there are roaring seas, people fainting, and the powers of the heavens tremble—but the darkness serves a definite purpose: to wake us up, to get us to pay attention, to focus on the light that we so easily take for granted weighed down as we inevitably are with dissipation, fatigue, and the worries of getting through the day.
In Advent, the world goes dark, so that we might remember the light and recollect our scattered selves, pulled so easily this way and that. It’s not, however, that Jesus is simply the light and that we are to become aficionados of the light—as if the path of discipleship were like driving through the neighborhood at night and admiring the various feats of lighting prowess our neighbors have performed. The whole point of Advent darkness which reminds us of the light is that this light, shining in the muck and straw of a manger outside an inn where a NO VACANCY sign creaks in the wind, this light who we are and who we are called to be.
Everything that is not the light needs to topple down, needs to be surrendered, needs to be relinquished. That’s one way to hear all the end-of-the world talk we get peppered with in Advent. It’s the end of the world with ourselves and our good works at the center. It’s the end of the world where there are wars and rumors of wars. It’s the end of the world where greed, anger, and ignorance, power, prestige, and possessions are trumpeted as the way to ultimate and lasting happiness. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Lutheran pastor executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in the last days of WWII tells us, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It’s in that context that we should hear all this apocalyptic language—heaven and earth with ourselves at the center are passing away to make room for a new heaven and new earth with Christ—all inclusive, unconditional love—at the center. “Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem,” writes Angelus Silesius, “but all in vain until He is born in me.”
So we are not mere light aficionados, but called to be people of the light, Christ’s light, shining in and through us. The amazing thing about this light is that it has been given to us, utterly without merit, as sheer gift. We haven’t done anything to earn the light, and there is nothing we can do to extinguish it. It’s a fact of being a human being created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus, not our own efforts, is our holiness. Our task, and it is the task of a lifetime, is to simply receive the light. With Mary we utter the little mustard seed of our “yes” that the light of the world might be the ground from which we live, selflessly, sacrificially, self-forgetfully for others. Our task, as the world goes dark, is to know that Jesus is the light—that it is in Him and Him alone that true safety, security, happiness, and joy are to be found. Our task is give ourselves over to that light and let it do its work upon on. “Our part,” says Ruth Burrows, OCD “is to let ourselves be loved, let ourselves be given to, let ourselves be worked upon by this great God and made capable of union with Him.”
Letting ourselves be loved, letting ourselves be given to and worked upon by God means we have to set aside a little time for God to get at us (this is my favorite description of prayer these days which I’ve borrowed from Rowan Williams—“letting God get at us.”) Like any relationship, we have to make time for our friendship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit to deepen, develop, and grow. For some this will mean praying the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer (a longstanding path to holiness in the Anglican tradition). For some this might mean praying scripture—working our way through small sections of the Gospels each day and pondering in our heart what the living word of God is speaking to us right here and right now. Others might simply want to spend some time in silence each day—coming to God just as we are and letting ourselves be loved.
One way to develop this friendship with Christ is to take a small passage from the Gospels (John is particularly good in this regard), read it, recall it, and then believe that you are the person whom Jesus questions and invites you to respond. Imagining ourselves into the scene we begin a process of gentle, loving, conversation with the Lord who dwells in the center of our being, closer to us than we are to ourselves. Sometimes the conversation will fall silent and we allow ourselves simply to rest—"not thinking much, but loving much” (Theresa of Avila). Slowly, but surely, our relationship with God starts to deepen moving from acquaintance, to friendship, to intimacy and union. But it all starts with allowing God to get at us. It’s not about methods or techniques of prayer, but relationship with the living God whose deepest desire is for union and communion with us, if we give our consent to God’s presence and action within us.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Blue and Brown Notebooks gives us a powerful way of thinking about what it means to expect, to be on guard, to be an Advent people. He asks, “What should I do if I expect my friend for tea? I put out cups, saucers, plates, jam, bread, cake and so forth. I make sure that my room is tidy.” What Wittgenstein is driving at that expectation is not some nebulous inner state that we need to cook up like a Hollywood actor once a year when the Advent calendar appears on the fridge. Rather, expectation is all about what we do. It’s about tidying up for our guest. Boiling the water. Setting out the teapot and digging out the tea cozy. It is immensely embodied and immensely practical. And the spiritual life is no different. What do we do to prepare for Jesus? How do we order our days in expectation of His coming? What practices can we engage with our selves, our souls, and bodies, that constitute and embody what it means to prepare and expect? How, in this season of Advent, will we dispose ourselves to the gift of the Spirit that God in Christ has poured into the very center of our being? Any priest worth their salt can help you with this, and, of course, my door is always open for individual spiritual direction.
This Advent, may we find time for deepening our friendship with the one who calls us friends. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, the noise, distraction, and getting and spending of the season, may we make room in the Inn of the Heart for Christ to come to fruition in and through us. May we remember that world goes dark to focus us on Jesus who is the light. May this time of Advent by a time where our friendship with God deepens as we acquaint ourselves with the light, make friends with the light and, yes, become instances of the light for others. Help us, Lord, to remember that the Incarnation is not simply about the birth of the God-Man 2000 years ago in humble stable, but about the birth of Christ right here and right now in the manger of our hearts.