We slow down and observe a Holy Pause. For the next four weeks, we reflect on what it means to live in darkness as we await the coming of the Light of Christ into our world.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. In the scriptures appointed for today, the readings all speak of the end times.
In the Book of Isaiah…we see the image of God judging the nations, and of all peoples beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
In the Gospel of Matthew…we hear descriptions of “the rapture” and are told to live in expectation of the Lord’s coming in judgment.
And in the Book of Romans…we learn that salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. Night is gone and day is at hand. Therefore, we are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…the light of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
These images, especially from the Book of Romans, must have been on the mind of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, during the time of the English Reformation…almost 500 years ago.
When I think back to the mid 1500’s when the Church in England became the Church of England during the reign of King Henry VIII, it was a time of great turmoil.
Throughout Europe, battles were raging between Catholics and Protestants for the very heart and soul of Christianity.
Religious wars became the norm and everyday Christians were not sure just what to think and who to follow. Their world had been turned upside down.
In England, after King Henry’s death, the church struggled for its identity. In the midst of this Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, along with other bishops and theologians, developed the first English Book of Common Prayer which was published in 1549. This would be the first prayer book to be used by all the people, not just the clergy. It was written in the common language of English, and not in the church’s language used for worship which was Latin. This was so everyone could understand what was being said and to be able to take part in the service. That is why the church’s prayer book was called “The Book of Common Prayer.”
Many prayers were specifically written for this First Book of Common Prayer including the collect for the First Sunday of Advent, which we still use today.
In fact, throughout the centuries, this same collect was prayed not only on the first Sunday of Advent but on every day of the Advent Season right up until Christmas Eve.
It speaks to our longing for the light as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer. During the next four weeks, darkness will take over more hours of the day, and we will yearn for more light.
Just recently, I went on retreat at Osage Forest of Peace in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. Osage truly is a forest, and once the sun began to set, darkness dropped like a heavy curtain over the entire retreat center. A thin slice of moon and a few distant stars provided the only light.
We were told to bring flash lights on retreat, but even with those it was hard to get around. On the first night, I got lost trying to find my cabin. Fortunately, the executive director found me wandering down the wrong path and kindly showed me the way back and pointed out where I had made a wrong turn.
I have to admit that it was a little scary walking in the deep darkness of the forest, especially when you could hear sounds of animals rustling through the woods and acorns dropping like rocks on the parched land.
This experience reminded me of a book I had recently read: “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” In it the author Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, says that darkness provides a way to find God especially during the times that we don’t have all the answers.
She says that we are often uncomfortable, and even afraid, of darkness because we equate darkness with danger.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that it is through darkness that we find courage and new ways of understanding the world around us. Rather than cowering in fear, it is in the darkness when we can feel God’s presence and the light of Christ breaking through and guiding us along life’s journey.
She encourages us to turn off the lights and embrace the darkness, both literally and spiritually.
What is this darkness that Barbara Taylor Brown talks about?
Basically, it is anything that scares us.
Darkness often occurs when we receive bad news that threatens to overwhelm us. How many times have we felt cast into darkness when we have learned about the death of a loved one …or when we have been struck with a serious illness, or loss of a job, or had a sudden shock of any kind.
In this darkness we feel Fear…Disbelief…Shock and Grief.
It is as if the lights have gone out in our world and we are left staggering in the darkness.
It is into that darkness that the Light of Christ comes.
Christ’s coming is not like flipping on a light switch in a darkened room, or of going from midnight to noon…from total darkness to total brightness.
Christ comes more like the coming of the dawn…when the darkness slowly gives way to a soft glow on the horizon…and then slowly, slowly, slowly it becomes brighter and brighter.
I can remember sitting by the bedside of my children when they were little, especially on nights when they would be running a fever. It always seemed scarier when they were sick in the middle of the night. I would do anything I could to get the fever down including putting a cold wash cloth on their fevered brow. Often I would sit by their side, and sometimes I would lay down next to them so that I could listen to their breathing.
Those were some scary times, and I give thanks that I felt God’s presence with me as I cared for my children.
I think of God coming to us like that…like a mother comforting and consoling her children…and offering a healing touch and a cool cloth to ease away the fever while waiting for it to break.
As the days pass by, and the seasons come and go, each day and each season brings us opportunities to grow in our faith and to see things in a new way.
I don’t know about you, but I am so ready for Advent this year. I want to pray the Collect written centuries ago…to cast off the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light…Christ’s light that is coming into the world.
I want to light the Advent candles…starting with only one this first week, and then adding an additional candle every week until all four candles are lit.
I want to be constantly reminded that Christ’s Light is coming into our world, and it will overcome whatever darkness we may be experiencing.
Along with this collect, I want to pray these words from an ancient hymn that still speaks to us today: (Hymnal #56)
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.
May you have a Blessed and Holy Advent. Amen.