Tag Archives: Advent

O Root of Jesse — December 19

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

The last few years I lived in Illinois, I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands tallgrass prairie conservancy in Lee County, Illinois. I was part of a small crew that would walk through stands of prairie grass spotting and removing invasive plants, making room for the remarkable diversity of native prairie grasses and flowers. The steward that I worked with was an encyclopedia of mind-blowing information about the prairie plants that we were making room for. I learned that for most of the prairie plants, the root system is deep and substantial. In fact, most of the biomass of prairie plants is below the surface of the ground. The deep and substantial root system insures that the plants will have water even in the driest summers. They enrich the soil and for some plants provide the network for forming new plants. The deep and substantial root system allows the plants to survive the prairie fires that are so vital to the health of the prairie ecosystem. The root systems of grasses and plants in the silphium family go down as far as 20′-25′.

The roots of Jesus go deep. The O Antiphon for December 19 takes those roots all the way back to David, son of Jesse, shepherd boy who rose to become king. John 1 takes those roots back even further. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him not one thing was made.”

The One by whom all things were made, the One who spans the long reaches of time and space, the One whose existence lies far beneath the surface of the humble birth in Bethlehem comes to us, comes now, comes to save us.

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

Advent and the Spirit of Joyless Urgency

urgencyI’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s relatively new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and came across this elegant and weighty phrase, “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency.”

She’s found words to describe what I see going on in my own life and around me. My to-do list is long and always growing. We crave relationship and intimacy and yet make no time for it, allowing Facebook and such to become a false and diabolical substitute. We neither make nor allow space — not for thinking, not for silence, not for people, not for God. It’s always on to the next thing. In fact, the urgency of the next thing makes it hard to focus on the now thing.

A few years ago, I convened a group where we talked about ancient spiritual practices and what they might look like in our highly technological, fast-paced world. When I talked about making space in our lives for silence, for doing nothing, for sitting and reflecting, for being with our loved ones in an unhurried, no-thought-given-to-productivity kind of way, one of the persons in the group responded that they simply could not do that. Their brain and their body would not allow it. And neither would their bank account. They had to be constantly busy and working. Alas.

Advent offers a profound antidote to urgency. We’re invited simply to wait with the prophets for the coming of the Messiah, prophets who waited for centuries, who did not see that which they were waiting for, but trusted in the promise that it would come.

Even the shortened days (at least in the northern hemisphere) of these last weeks of the calendar year invite me to sit in the quiet dark and wait and think and reflect and pray.

And when I do? I find that the image of God in which I have been created is more apparent when I slow down and when I make space. I am more generous to people, more gracious about their faults, less fearful about a broken world, more inclined to see things from the perspective of faith.

And what of the joy?

I sit in my reading and writing place on a gray morning. I’m tired from a long weekend of heavy responsibilities, sitting with a long list of things that need to get done, and little energy to get up and do any of them. This is just the kind of day to ignore the joy around me.

Yet, to see and experience those things around me that could bring joy is a decision, a choice. I think of some pretty amazing Advent worship on Sunday, of the buzz after the services about what people found meaningful. To know that people were touched by God is one of the reasons I do what I do. Surely, there is joy in that.

At one of those services, a husband and wife who had two days earlier lost their 30-something son to death by cancer were in church. I watched as they wept, as they smiled at the ways their young granddaughters engaged in the service, and as countless numbers of their fellow pilgrims shared hugs and tears with them after the service. Surely there is joy in deep human connection.

Last night as I laid on our bed reading, our 40 pound poodle mix jumped up and threw herself against me, pawing at my hand until I began to scratch her neck. As I did so, she began to relax, and laid her head down looking into my eyes as she fell asleep. A mysterious moment of connection between man and beast. Surely, there is joy in that.

The point here is not that there is no chance for moments of joy. It’s that I have not become very adept or practiced at noticing them, countless numbers of them day in and day out. Perhaps too consumed by the urgent?

So, this will by my advent discipline. To step away from urgency. And to find joy.

On Waiting. Or Why There Are No Christmas Trees in the Sanctuary on December 10th

In the church I serve, it’s the 10th of December, and we have no Christmas decorations up. No trees. No ornaments. No lights. Just an Advent wreath, our striking blue Advent paraments, and some paper globes hung randomly around the sanctuary. The globes make make a tie-in to our Advent preaching theme. But they are clearly NOT Christmas decorations; they are NOT Christmas trees.

Some have alerted me of their displeasure that there are no Christmas trees up yet on the 10th of December.

If I wanted to be snarky, I could answer right back about the logic of the matter. Look at the church calendar. It’s Advent in the church. It’s not Christmas.

Of course, they could also trip me up on the logic of our practice. We don’t wait until after the 4th Sunday in Advent. We usually put the trees up sometime mid-December. Too early for some; way too late for the “Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving” crowd. A kind of middle of the road practice that probably satisfies no one. So, if we’re not actually going to wait all the way until Christmas, why wait at all? Put up the damned trees the day after thanksgiving. Just be done with it. Who would care?

It’s unlikely that logic will bring satisfaction to anyone on this matter.  It’s Christmas, and all kinds of emotions and memories and expectations are tied up in all of this. For you, for me, for those in my congregation who wish our trees were up.

So, why wait?

There’s this passage in Isaiah. “They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” Honestly, it’s always stuck in my craw. I don’t like waiting. I avoid restaurants where I have to wait in line. I will get off the interstate and try to find another route if traffic is backed up. Even if it takes the same amount of time, at least I am moving and I have the illusion of progress. I. Hate. Waiting. How could there be strength in waiting?

This is true: there are some things that I cannot control. There are some things about which I have no choice but to wait. If I want to bake a cake, there is a certain amount of time between mixing the batter and cutting it into serving-sized pieces. When my wife became pregnant with our sons, there was no choice but to wait through the 40-week gestation period. There are some things that I simply cannot control.

Which is a good reminder. Because a lot of the time, we live with the illusion that we can control things. I can control where I live. I can control who I work for. I can control where I go to church, and if I contribute enough and bluster enough, I may even be able to control what the pastor says from the pulpit. Or when the Christmas trees get put up.

But having to wait is a reminder that I am not in control. And I should not be in control. My whole life is a mystery and a miracle. The fact that I am alive at this moment is a function of grace. I can’t DO anything to make my heart beat. I can’t DO anything to make my brain keep up its command center monitoring of my bodily functions and my emotions and my thoughts. Those things are outside of my control and are a sign — at least for me — of the goodness of God.

So, waiting has something to do with a reverent acknowledgement that my life is in God’s hands. And that God may be working in some way that I cannot see, not only for my benefit, but for the benefit of the human community and all of creation. Sometimes, waiting is necessary for what God is cooking up to come to completion. I need to realize that. I need to practice that. I need to live that. In a culture where we often live with the fiction that we are in control, waiting is a wholesome practice. It reminds me that some things are not manageable and are not instant. Some things require gestation. Some things only emerge in the waiting.

So if there is a wholesomeness to waiting, should there not be a place to practice and develop the discipline of waiting? Intentionally. Purposefully. Reverently. In the full knowledge that not only is God present in the waiting, but God is acting in the waiting, eager to reveal the fulfillment of a promise?

So, where shall we practice the wholesome discipline of waiting. If not the church, then where?

Hence, a sanctuary devoid of Christmas trees on December 10.