Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
What Are We Waiting For?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 28, 2010
Believe it or not, Thanksgiving is behind us, fading fast in the rear-view mirror of this year almost finished. Looming up ahead like a huge metropolis on the horizon is Christmas. We have lit the first of the four candles on our church’s Advent “wreath”. (It’s not really a wreath, I know.) But we’ve lit the first of the purple candles; purple, the color of royalty, to signify the coming of Christ the King; the pink one—for joy—we’ll light in week three (that’s December 12 this year). Three purple and one pink; that’s the way it usually goes at Advent.
Of course, the more secular colors of Christmas are red and green; so, you’ll see holiday wreaths bedecked with red and green candles. But they’re not really advent wreaths, per se; they’re just nice, holiday, Christmas wreaths.
Sometimes, though, I think that maybe we should have yellow lights on the Advent wreath, or on our Christmas trees. Yellow, perhaps, along with the red and green; sort of like traffic lights, to guide us through this busy season. Maybe at Advent we need yellow caution lights—to slow us down; to tell us to clear the intersection; to make way for all that Christmas is really about.
So, anyway, here we are on the threshold of Christmas again. Already. It did it again! It snuck up on us again this year! I bet that most of us approach this holiday nether from an all-good or all-bad direction, but rather with some complicated mixture of joy, dread, anticipation, and resignation. here we are, almost at Christmas, and most of us probably aren’t ready. Maybe we’ve already bought a few gifts; maybe we have our Christmas cards addressed already, ready to put in the mail; maybe we stocked up on wrapping paper in the after-Christmas sales last year. But in spite of all our well-intentioned vows that this year would be different, it won’t be. So we become a little anxious, and then a little frantic. And we try to cram more and more in; the days leading to Christmas get longer and more exhausting; we want it perfect, too; too perfect. In the words of one Presbyterian minister, we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child as though an over-picky mother-in-law was coming for a visit. Deep down inside, we may likely have this fear that when Christmas finally does arrive, we won’t be ready. We’ll be like Babushka in the old Russian folk tale, who is so busy sweeping her floors and cleaning her house and making everything perfect, that the Wise Men and the Baby Jesus pass her by. We’re afraid that because we’re so busy getting ready for Christmas, that the real spirit of the holiday, this holy day, will be lost in the shuffle.
So, we need the candles of Advent, whether they’re purple and pink, or yellow and red and green, to remind us to slow down, open our eyes, awaken our senses, and experience the real miracle of Christmas. As the German martyr-priest Alfred Delp reminds us, we need an “Advent of the Heart” to lead us to a true Christmas: to shake us awake; to call us to integrity and authenticity; to remind us of our deepest faith; to lead us to respond to the miracle and mystery of Life with reverent awe and wonder.
We need Advent to remind us that still, in spite of everything, the light shines. And love abides. And the hope that Christmas still brings remains.
I don’t have to tell you that we live in difficult times. Many of our
young men and women won’t be home for Christmas again this year, but will be
stuck, again this year, in seemingly intractable wars in
These years have taken something from us, and have sapped our energies. Our spirits feel trampled at times. People seem especially tired and weary and fearful and confused in these days in which we live.
But we gather here this morning, and in this season, as a people of faith (a peculiar faith, true; but faith nonetheless): A faith that the spirit of the divine lives within the heart of every person, waiting, some time, to be born; waiting for its spring, to flower, to be called forth to life.
As it was called forth in the life of the great man of
Perhaps where we stand now, on the threshold of December, the threshold of winter, the days can seem all darkness. In the days long before there was a Christmas, long before there was any knowledge of Jesus as “light of the world”, our ancient pagan forebears lit huge bonfires at this time of year, to seduce the sun back from its steady retreat that culminates in the solstice, the shortest day of the year. Those huge fires were lit to drive the darkness away. Now, through our modern technology, we can banish the outer darkness whenever we choose, with the flick of a switch. But the inner darkness—the emptiness—the hunger that this time of year brings—remains. So, we yearn for the light of Christmas.
This darkness—this emptiness—this hunger—is as much a part of Christmas
as the shining star, and the singing angels, and the holiday feasting. It was
because the inn at
Which is a tragedy, for Christmas offers us so much.
Christmas is the promise that our emptiness will be filled; our hungers fed; the deep darkness within flooded with light. It is a promise that the sad, the weary, and the hopeless will be comforted—and that means all of us. Those who wander in a strange land, or in the land of alienation, will find a place to rest. Those who yearn for truth and meaning will find a star to guide them.
Christmas will come—it will trulyy come—if we prepare a place in our hearts for it. We can not make it come. We can not force it (like the child who tries to make the flower grow faster by tugging at it). Advent is not about getting stuff ready for Christmas (or getting us stuffed already for Christmas). It’s about getting our hearts ready for the Christmas within, which is often more about clearing out than adding to. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “The soul grows not by addition, but by subtraction.” Christmas may even come most powerfully when we are most sure it won’t. As the great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka reminds us, “Sometimes, in order to see the stars, one must descend to the bottom of a well.” Oftentimes, it’s away from the tinsel and decorations and the music—even away from church—that the true miracle of Christmas can find a place in our hearts.
If we’re ready for it. If we plant its seeds.
For real waiting is not just passively hanging around. Real waiting, in its most profound and deepest sense, is an active process. It’s not about control. But it is about engagement. Engagement with life. Engagement in the living of our lives.
Real waiting is not about expecting lilies for which we’ve never planted the seeds. But it is about taking the time to tend the seeds we’ve planted.
Advent reminds us that we still have seeds that need planting. Advent reminds us that are spiritual searchers, and not merely way-worn wanderers. Advent calls us back home. Back to the stable. Back to our true birth. Back to our simplest humanity. Back to the person that we truly are.
One of my favorite Christmas readings is by one of my predecessors in this pulpit, Gordon McKeeman. He wrote them in the 1950s:
“It is not Christmas which is unbelievable,” Bucky McKeeman wrote way back then, “but the lives we lead [the rest of the year] which are unbelievable, unreal, untrue. The fear-wracked, anxiety-ridden, violent, tortured, frustrated selves with which we live [so often are] but a… [debased] parody of the divinity of humankind… We are unbelievably ungrateful, so seldom taking the time or the opportunity to express to our fellow creatures… our heartfelt thanks… We wish people a merry Christmas, and we mean it. We wish them a happy new year, and we mean it. But so seldom do we wish them a merry March or April or May. And so seldom live as though we really wished it.”
“This is our task,” wrote the great Unitarian minister John Haynes
Or as Zorba the Greek put it, “Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die.”
As we all are, soon or very soon, one day or another.
Which, of course, sounds awfully pessimistic—it seems like such a downer for this cheerful, joyful, happy time of year.
And I admit that thinking upon our own end times is not the most cheerful thing to dwell upon. But it is a wake up call, and a reminder to the wondrous things to which these lives of ours are called.
“Life is full of suffering,” wrote Thich Nhat Hahn, good Buddhist that he is. “But it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us, and all around us, everywhere, any time.”
Each day is the advent of its own tomorrow, and we are each the messiah—the redeemer—of the next moment that is before us.
So, for now, we wait. Not passively, not despondently, but in joyful hope. Not lost in frenetic activity, but with arms outstretched to life, all of our senses open wide, wide awake to the call of life.
Wide awake, and poised on the moment—the day—the season—that is before us now: ready to hear its music; see its color; taste is sweetness. Ready to wait, and live, and hope, and take our time, and make our time our own.