Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Cold Descent of Advent

The lake outside my window is now thoroughly frozen, spattered with blowing snow that stirs up in pools as the stiff north wind blows. The sighing of the wind is broken only in the morning by the sounds of animals settling in--the caw of a jay, the thumping of the woodpecker, the scratching of a squirrel looking furiously for a nut. My bright yellow down-filled jacket provides needed protection, but my eyes have this terrible habit of leaking as I face into the north wind.

The advent wreath hangs ominously on the pulpit side of the chancel as the organ begins its peal and the monks huddle in the chancel around the baptismal font preparing to make their entrance. Then the procession starts, with Fr. Columba Stewart, O.S.B., bringing up the rear, bending low to the altar, and taking his place in liturgical leadership--a beautiful gown trimmed in purple and gold to signal the change of the seasons. The Advent texts speak of remaining awake and alert, our redemption somewhere just over the horizon.

"Advent has a special place amongst professional religious," Columba says, "containing a certain atmospheric darkness which ends in Christmas." Then he launches into a reflection on the curious juxtaposition of the violence of the Advent texts with the gilt-edge manger scene with which most people are most comfortable. "Salvation," he proclaims, "however near, lies at the other end of calamity." By the end of the peroration, he has reminded us that, unlike other animals, we can hope and that this liberating love, promised in Christ, will cast out our fear.

But, I think, we are a people who no longer know the sense of pervading darkness that our ancestors knew, yet we are just as fearful as they. We fear the "other," we fear a lack of security, we fear, above all else, the unknown. We want to know, to be in control, to avoid these keenly apocalyptic texts and scuttle, like bed bugs, for the comfort of that Bethlehem manger--scrubbed free, of course, of the smell of dung and the discomfort of the penetrating cold. Help us, O Lord, to learn to embrace the present darkness and, in so doing, to recognize that you are with us perhaps even more powerfully in these "in-between" times when you seem so far away.