Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Advent Inspiration

I often find it quite difficult to discover a focus for Advent as there are so many themes associated with this season of preparation. We wait, in anticipation, to celebrate the Incarnation - not just Jesus' birth, but the difference that the entry of God's life into every aspect of our life today makes. Darkness and light, waiting and consumation, hope and fulfilment, justice and mercy, judgement and forgiveness, disturbance and peace, history and the end of history as we know it - these are some of the dichotomies we tend to think about in Advent. This year, I suppose I've been drawn to emptiness and presence as metaphors for exploration.

I've never been good at waiting and certainly not at being attentive to the waiting. If I do have to wait for something, I tend to fill the time with other purposeful (nor not so purposeful!) activities. I suppose this is to avoid a sense of emptiness or wasting time. Yet, when I stop to think about it, some of the most frutiful times of my life have come about as a result of retreats, of going away and just being with God and myself, of 'dark night of the the soul experiences' when there hasn't been any sense of a God to be with. Times that have eventually driven me to the mystics and to writers who talk about those places of darkness, emptiness, 'unknowing' and, often, those feelings of marginalisation and being outcast by the norms of the society in which we live. These are places where we suddenly become accutely aware of the futility of so many of the things that attract us and call for our attention everyday. We may also become aware of the lack of any system or set of answers adequate to deal with the injustices we see around us, whether things that effect us or things that we see blighting the lives of others. This is an uncomfortable region to inhabit and it is sometimes accompanied by a sense of lurking fear or dread. As we move through the Advent readings, we pass through this place of deep alienation to a place where we find the messangers of God singing and speaking and enacting the hope that God will come to fill the emptiness - light in our darkness, justice for those in despair, truth in confusion, Christ in our midst.

And so we move from that place of abandonment and loneliness to a place where our antennae begin to pick up the rustling of a presence. In Mary's story, we see the slow inner realisation that she is with child and the growth of that child acknowledged, at first, simply by the angel - God's private conversationalist with Mary - then by family members and in the song of her own spirit, 'Magnificat!'. Tiny beginnings of something new that, at first, you hardly dare to believe is there! You hardly dare to speak about it to others. This contasts with the rather proudly public proclamations of the coming presence of God in Isaiah's writings and John the Baptist's preaching,
'Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord! Clear the way in the desert for our God! ...the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all humankind will see it!'
Presence can be very full, very weighty, impossible to ignore. Or it can be nothing more than a hint, a question mark on the breath, a changed consciousness.

When you are in an empty place, it can be really difficult to summon up the courage or even the energy to meet and greet someone. Their presence feels unwelcome, like an intolerable intrusion into the space you inhabit. Or an irrelevance. Yet the longer we are in a place of stillness, the greater the urge to bring forth something - to create, to recreate, to find meaning, to face our challenges or even to face the unfaceable. Sometimes, we are jolted into presence by external events - the need to get up, get out, decide and put something right; other times, we have that slow, inner, growing awareness of presence - we find we are not alone in what we are about. An unknown way, full of possibilities, begins to open up before us. An unfolding rather than an imposing. What will be your Advent path, this year? 

A poem of Amy Carmichael (1867 - 1951)

Shadow and coolness
Shadow and coolness art thou, O Lord, to me,
Cloud of my soul, lead on, I follow thee.
What, though the hot winds blow,
Fierce heat beat up below,
Fountains of water flow -
Praise, praise to thee.

Clearness and glory, Lord, art thou to me;
Light of my soul, lead on, I follow thee.
All through the moonless night,
Making its darkness bright,
Thou art my heavenly light - 
Praise, praise to thee.

Shadow and shine art thou, dear Lord, to me;
Pillar of cloud and fire, I follow thee.
What though the way be long,
In thee, my heart is strong,
Thou art my joy, my song - 
Praise, praise to thee.   

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