It feels hard to believe, but exactly one year ago on this day, December 1, I was ordained as a pastor into the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. My ordination took place at my home congregation in Chicago, surrounded by family, friends, church family, and colleagues in ministry. People from the different communities that have shaped me into the pastor and the person I am today were well-represented – including this community.
One part of the liturgy that most stands out for me is the laying on of hands. As the ordination rite itself began, about halfway through the service, all clergy present were invited to come forward to offer a brief individual blessing to me. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what they said (blame the cold medication and utter surrealness of the day). Most were something like: “Blessings on your ordination… Blessings on your ministry… God is with you.”
But one that I definitely do remember: “Pour down, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness.” Whoa. This particular blessing, no surprise, came to me by a retired pastor and seminary worship professor.
Talk about a wake-up call! “Pour down, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness.” These are words that I would later discover come from an obscure (to me) liturgical text for Advent based on Isaiah 45: in Latin, the Rorate caeli, or most commonly in English, the Advent Prose. Traditionally, this text is included in both Catholic and some Protestant circles in liturgies honoring Mary, as the bearer of God’s Son, during Advent.
It feels appropriate to call to mind this rather jarring memory on a day when our texts also call us to wake up. Isaiah prophesies about God’s impending judgment on a people who had strayed from God’s teachings and about an as-yet future day when war and violence will be no more. More emphatically and even with a tinge of dread, Jesus calls us to keep awake because no one knows the day or hour of the Lord’s coming. Even our prayer of the day calls on Christ himself to “stir up [his] power.” This is a season of waking up, of being called to attention, of making ready for the coming of Immanuel, God-with-us.
Advent is like a wake-up call: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come… Keep awake… Be ready… A time for beating swords into plowshares, for studying peace, and un-learning war…
No wonder Advent comes as such a jolt. Nothing about our culture this time of year seems to make space for Advent. By now, holly, jolly Christmas music has been on the radio for weeks, and bright red and green and silver and gold decorations have been in stores even longer. Even for those who firmly hold out against Christmas before Thanksgiving have now given in. It’s a Christmas takeover, and it seems like there’s no room for Advent.
In the cultural pushing out of Advent and takeover by Christmas, it seems we’ve lost Advent’s wake-up call. In some traditions, there’s actually been a counter-push for expanding Advent to seven weeks, starting the week after All Saints Day – not a completely novel idea, but really a return to an earlier practice in the church. After all, our texts for the past few weeks before Advent have sounded rather Advent-like – concerned with the reign of God, and end-times, and resurrection – all calling us to wake up and be ready. Advent is a little like Lent in that way – a time of preparation and re-orientation ahead of one of the principal celebrations on the church calendar.
So what do we have to prepare for this Advent season? If we take our cue from Black Friday and consumer marketing, it’s shopping for presents, baking, hosting parties, and decorating…but how easy it is to get bogged down and overwhelmed. What if, instead, we took advantage of this season to nourish our souls…to take time to pause, to sit still, to reflect, to pray…to sit in the darkness before the dawn, just a little while longer – and on purpose.
This Advent, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of light and darkness. Traditionally, this is the season where we look forward to the dawn, to the coming of the light that dispels the darkness…a season where darkness has come to be viewed as “bad” and light “good.”
But what if we could imagine darkness as a good thing? What if we could dwell in the darkness of this season and learn to walk in the dark? After all, some of our most significant Bible stories happen in darkness: God creates the world from a murky abyss, Jacob wrestles with God through the night, God leads the Israelites out of slavery under the cover of night, an angel visits Joseph in a dream as he sleeps to tell him of Mary’s pregnancy. It seems like the Bible is trying to tell us something about darkness…in darkness comes creation, liberation, promise. This is the darkness of the womb, not the tomb…darkness that is growing new life and giving birth to great hope.
After all, Isaiah’s words come to a people facing darkness, destruction, exile, and trauma. But that doesn’t make God’s promise for the future any less certain. The day when war will be no more has yet to happen…but, proclaims the prophet: Come, let us walk in the light of God now! Even in the darkness. As if to say: both are true…darkness and light together.
Next week at Unity, we’ll observe Blue Christmas – a special service that carves out space for those who aren’t quite feeling the “holiday spirit” for a variety of reasons. Blue Christmas is a time to intentionally sit in a quiet, darkened space because we know God is as much in the darkness as in the light, and perhaps God is felt even more acutely and strongly in the darkness.
As one writer puts it: “Advent reminds us that God seeks us out where we are right now. Not where we should be by our own or anyone else’s estimation. God seeks us out when we are in exile and when we are suffering, when we are callous and cowardly, when we are more concerned with common sense than faithfulness, when we are fearful and arrogant, when we are lost and broken, when we are sad and alone, when we are traumatized and wondering when the light will start to win, when we feel forgotten and bored and insignificant and tired, when we are wounded and when we are the ones who are wounding.”
This year, I’m thinking of Advent’s wake-up call as less of an alarm clock and more of a meditation bell. It doesn’t rush us toward Christmas, but it invites us to linger. Linger in the darkness. Let your eyes adjust to the night. Give it time. Even there, even now, God is with us still.