“Light of Life” ©
Thoughts on the 1st Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thomas Merton’s final manuscript which he sent to the publisher just prior to his trip to Asia in February, 1968 was published this year with a foreward by Sarah Coakley. It has been given the title, “The Climate of Monastic Prayer,” but it is not restricted to monks alone. In this work, which is pretty much an extended essay, Merton says that the prayer life of the monk – and anyone who prays in the same mode – is set within a life of expectation that is fueled by dread. This goes a long way toward understanding every monk’s legacy of heading out to the desert and to out-of-the-way places that continues to pull and tug at a certain level of isolation and solitariness. This dread, Merton goes on to say, is shaped by each monk’s confrontation with two questions: 1) Am I ultimately living a lie?, and 2) How is it possible to have a relation with such a hidden, inscrutable God?
I can only imagine that today’s Gospel for this 1st Sunday of Advent fits into this type of expectation that locates itself in dread over the anguish, distress, and untimely death that accompanies this particular vision of the End Time. Welcome to one vision for the start of Advent.
While we have not experienced anything close to such anguish and distress here in the north country of Wisconsin, nor are we in the dreaded desert, we do have snow in our yard from the most recent storm. It is at least 4 inches deep and it’s a powdery variety of the white stuff now covering the ground and all the surrounding trees. This winter wonderland makes it possible to play a new game with Connor, our 1 ½ year old Irish Setter puppy. Here’s how it goes. I make a snowball out of the powdery flakes and show it to Connor. He jumps excitedly, as Irish Setters do, with the expectation that I will throw this white ball as I do the yellow tennis balls when there is no snow on the ground. I throw, he fetches and brings the ball back (well at least until he gets bored.) The hitch in this new game, though, is that a snowball made up of powdery flakes, when thrown into 4 inches of snow hits the ground and falls apart. Connor runs after the white solid ball that has fallen to the ground but then he cannot find it after the drop. That’s when I get the look that says, “What did you do with my ball?”
The point? The point is that sometimes the solid things of reality and life fall apart leaving us to realize that in the end life is about the game and not the capture.
We live in a world that all too often presents life as a thing, which is OK because this material thing that’s called life requires food and drink, shelter and security. But life is also spirit and that spiritual life requires love and learning how to love.
Where does one go to gain clarity that the spirit of life is so much more fundamental than the material things of life? Well, Christians go to the One whose life was all about love. Christ, whose coming to human life was clearly devoid of material realities (unless you want to quibble about his body that needed to survive materially) is the Real One – our model for real life.
Reality, like powdery snowballs that hit the ground and disappear, can easily fall apart. The Spirit of Life, like the games we play, holds together. In two weeks we will hear a familiar example that shows the value of life over things. John the Baptist will say to the crowd, “I baptize in water, but the Messiah who is coming will baptize in the Spirit.” As symbolic as the material reality of water is it remains just a symbol. John recognizes that it is the Spirit who gives life.
The French philosopher, Michel Henry, points clearly to the awareness that life, in its spiritual reality of each individual, is the most real reality. All material stuff is just symbol and metaphor. That’s right even Oprah’s giveaway cars are only metaphors. Henry calls this view on life – each person’s manifestation. He means to show that events and experiences of life’s fullness enliven a person so much more than the material reality of things. And the deeper a person travels into that fullness the more real that person’s life becomes
And now we come to Advent – this season of expectations. Curiously, this returns me to Merton’s monk so full of dread. Remember, Merton sees the monk’s life from out of the history of the original searchers who went to the desert to seek a desolate environment that could match the emptiness they so often experienced in their quest for the divine. When Merton mentions the state of dread it’s then that he raised those two questions of the possibility of living a lie and searching for the hidden God.
Why would anyone want to put oneself through such dread? I believe it’s because the wager is on the side of life as spiritual depth and fullness rather than on the side of material emptiness.
This Season of Promise invites each one of us to make our own wager on life – with all its connections to the Spirit that gifts us with community now and in the life to come.
At some point this winter – as certain as this is Wisconsin – we’ll get a snowfall with a better grade of snowflake than this most recent storm, the kind of flake that holds together when you make snowballs. When I throw those better balls they will not break apart upon hitting the ground. I expect that will make Connor very happy. But until that happy time, I also expect that he will continue to chase after the disappearing snowballs because he loves the game too much – which is what is most important, after all.
Our God is our justice. We offer gifts of bread and wine and see in our eating and drinking your Son, the Christ, among us; the Promised One whose miraculous gift is this saving grace of community. Amen
A Litany for Wreath Lighting
Leader: Emmanuel, we hold the memory of your life. Jesus, have mercy.
All: Jesus, have mercy.
Leader: Messiah, we celebrate the ministry of your example. Christ, have mercy.
All: Christ, have mercy.
Leader: Luminous Light, we are the grace of your presence. Jesus, have mercy.
All: Jesus, have mercy.
Presider: The God of Promise fulfills in us the Messiah’s Way now and evermore.