Advent light

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For anyone looking for more light as we approach the December solstice.

We need more light in the upstairs sitting room but the length of fairy lights I bought are not long enough for the bookshelf.

I’ve been working at my desk since before seven this morning. I didn’t sleep well and got up even though it was still dark. Lucy and I both feel we are suffering a little from the shortness of day light hours, from deep shadows in the house, squinting our eyes to see in the gloom. We need to be outside more, under the sky, breathing fresh air, soaking up what little sun is left. Only a few weeks into winter and we long for spring.

The window behind my desk is darkened by the silhouette of bare trees, but the sky is acid yellow where the sun presses through and the raindrops on the glass have swallowed enough light to burn like candles.

 “The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.”

John 1.5

I sit down to write from my heart, from the scriptures, from wild imaginings and dreams. And it comes to me again, the measure of His grace and how words can only be used to approximate his love. How we are all debtors to an unconditional attentiveness that will not let us go. That He has shined his light into our world and it has touched every dark place. It has found its way through a hairline crack or a pinprick hole, even the slightest thinning in the fabric of life must give way to light. And in our hearts, brightening and softening, the darkness of our thinking and the bitterness of our hurt are bathed in His light.

Today is the Feast of Saint Lucy in the western and eastern church.  Lucy was a 3rd-century martyr who according to legend took food to ancient Christians who hid from persecution in the catacombs. The stories tells of how she took a candle wreath to light her way. She is remembered for her generosity to the poor and commemorated as a martyr. But this feast day, so close to the shortest day of the year, is all about light. It is all about learning how to live in a turning of the seasons, how this is only possible when we can look ahead. I read of one beautiful St Lucy’s day tradition from Hungary and Croatia: planting wheat grains on December 13th that will be several centimetres high on Christmas, to represent the life and growth that Christ brings us by his nativity.

Waiting for the divine Word to come for her, like the wise virgins Lucy filled the lamp of her soul with oil most rich; for having sold all her property, she bestowed all her substance upon the poor and destitute. Wherefore, feeding the hungry and giving drink to those athirst, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the indigent, she laid up for herself great store of the oil of mercy, wherewith to delight her Master. For this cause, let us sinners entreat her with boldness, that she pour forth of her oil and wine upon our manifold wounds, treating the afflictions of our bodies and curing the passions of our souls, that, restored to full health by her, we also may abide eternally with the heavenly Bridegroom.

Liturgical hymn for Saint Lucy

We have been watching the footage coming out of Yeman and last night there was bad news from Aleppo. Kingdoms rise and Kingdoms fall. Close to home someone you know someone lost sleep through sickness, sadness or deep deep care.

Let us pray.

The season of nativity, a fast in the Orthodox church, where, deprived of the comfort of rich food, we look to the Light of the World for comfort. For the six weeks of advent, Orthodox Christians fast from meat, eggs and dairy.  It is a fast that changes the tone of the season for those who try to keep it. Our modern Christmas time is one of plenty, it is an advertisement of our self made wealth, our man made prosperity. It will come, it will pass. The fast seeks to separate us from the temporary and fleeting pleasures of the season and prepare us long and slow for the coming of Christ, Light of the World, a real and lasting promise in dark times.

 

lucia

 

 

 

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Books for Advent

Recommendations for advent reading.

Until recently I had not been part of a church that followed the liturgical calendar. Sometimes it actively opposed such remembrance, arguing that we should celebrate Christ’s birth, his death and resurrection, everyday, especially as there was no direction to make an occasion of these events in scripture. At other times the attitude was ambivalent. Not knowing quite what to do with the season, independent churches who found their identity in having broken away from the established churches, were unable to decide whether to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations or to keep a safe distance from the worldliness of it all.

Some time before I moved to a liturgical church I found that I was slipping into a rhythm of Bible reading and contemplation that followed the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as easily as my heart and writing followed the seasons of the natural world. When my inner winter times seemed to go on forever I took comfort in Lenten practices that followed the pattern of the freshly emerging spring. When resurrection Sunday came, I celebrated more deeply than before. As the last leaves turned and fell in a splendour of autumn glory, mornings were cold but thought of Advent warmed my soul. The rhythms of the church year echoed the patterns of my own spiritual formation and gave me words to pray in the different seasons of life.

Christmas approaches and we rekindle traditions within our own homes, the right date for putting up the tree, recipes we only make at this time of year, trips out to the German markets or to the theatre, a fire in the hearth every night, movies and good books. The tender meanings of incarnation in a broken world are enlivened for us in carol singing and lectionary readings. Counting down to the shortest day of the year we can make time for  extra reading, something devotional or if we are already widely read in devotional works, something more theologically challenging.

The books I am reviewing today are written for advent and offer three different approaches to devotional writing but there common goal is to help us connect more authentically with Christ, the heart of our Christmas faith.

Janet Morely, Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany.

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This seasonally decorated book offers 37 poems on advent themes, a commentary on each and a question to guide our thoughts and prayers. Morley uses each poem as a stimulus to examine themes of fears and expectations, darkness and light, annunciation, patience, death and hope of resurrection. I have have especially appreciated how her comments on the poem open up the layers of meaning without forcibly dictating the message. The questions at the end of each chapter have been a prompt for my journal notes and help me connect what I have read with how I will respond.

Extract from a chapter one Emily Dickinson’s poem, We grow accustomed to the dark,

“An important dimension of advent is that it moves through a time when the world is becoming increasingly dark. Days are shorter, nights start sooner, and the quality of light is often dulled by poor weather. There is no avoiding having to live quite a large proportion of our waking life during hours of darkness, and for some people this is a physical reality that leads to gloom or even depression … Have you ever experienced the sense of being totally in the dark, either in your prayer life or in life decisions generally? Was it possible for you to risk keeping going in that darkness?”

 

Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift

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The Tree of Jesse is a symbol from Medieval art representing the ancestors of Christ as presented in the gospel geneologies. The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Voskamp’s book traces the redemptive connections between characters in the Old Testament, Messianic prophesies, and significant events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Those who are familiar with Voskamp’s writing will notice the predominance of her own familiar theme: the overwhelming power of God’s grace to heal the most damaged soul.

An extract from The Greatest Gift, a reflection on Matthew 1

“God can’t stay away. This is the love story that has been coming for you since the beginning. The God. Who walked with us in the garden in the cool of the evening, before the fall shattered our closeness with him, is the God who came after his people in the pillar of cloud, of fire, because he couldn’t bear to let his people wander alone. He is the God who came to grieving job as a whirl wind, a tornado, a hurricane, who covenanted to Abraham as a smoking furnace, who wildly pitched his tent with the holy of holies so somehow, in all the Shekinah glory, he could get close enough to live amid his people.”

 

Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent

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This advent book by Bible Society theologian, Paula Gooder is the most theological orientated of the three book. It involves no scholarly exegesis, but the writing reflects Gooder’s stated intent of bringing the bennefits of modern Biblical Studies to a wider audience of Christian readers. The book has four main chapters, one for each week of advent and they examine stories of waiting in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary. There is an introductory chapter of waiting as a Chrsitan virtue that deals splendidly with the idea of time in Biblical thought.

An extract from the final chapter of, The Meaning is in the Waiting

“Mary’s song of praise, when it comes, is one of the most powerful in the Bible: the idea of reversal (the powerful being made low and the lowly being lifted up), the poetry, and the sheer joy of the song, have made sure that it has remained one of the churches’ favourite expressions of praise for many centuries … Luke portrays Mary as the first poetic theologian of the New Testament : she sees the event of the world around her, makes connections between them, draws deeply on her religious roots and pours this out in a beautiful hymn of praise.”

Well fitting faith

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We skipped church this morning and took a walk in the woods.

Looking out across a frozen lake, shell duck and wigeon collected around the grass-tufted islands and a  cormorant had unfolded its great black wings to dry in the sun. We marched through the oak leaves and the beech mast and we played with our cameras trying to capture the ways in which, even the smallest change in light, can shift the perspective on a familiar scene. We drank our coffee in the hide and counted the swans that arrive everyday from greenland, we scanned the muddy edges for wading birds, ornithological treasures amongst the scores of ducks.

Usually taken amongst the faithful, today’s sabbath rest was taken amongst the reeds, under an open sky, taken in quiet companionship and by (literal) still waters. In a landscape of rest, that felt as if it had been made just for us, we gave ourselves permission to stay away from church and it filled up our souls for the week ahead.

There was a time when we would not have done this, skipped church to walk. In those days we did not neglect meeting together as some were in the habit of doing. Never.

But Jesus said are you tired? and I was. It’s a condition of the soul that must be dealt with. To be tired, all the time, is a sign that things are not well.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

In Luke 13 Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for 18 years, but he did it on the sabbath and incited the disapproval of the synagogue leaders and their well defined ideas. Their business was making sure that the people did the things that would bring them the most blessing. They decided what the blessings were, and they decided how they were achieved. Maybe their intentions were good, but let us be clear; these men would rather the woman remained disabled that see one of their precious rules bent in this way.

Jesus asks them, “Should not this woman ..be set free from what has bound her?” and begs the answer that of course she should. And so must we, be set free from thinking, and acting in ways that stifle the joy, peace and freedom that we saw when we first came to Christ. There is a depth of encounter with Jesus that can set us free from the things that weigh us down. There is also a phenomena where our pursuit of faith and the Christian culture we are part of becomes the burden.

It takes unusual courage to move away from long held beliefs and practices to embrace something new. Dark feelings lurk around such decisions and they often hide our need for approval and fear of disappointing others.

There is no quick fix or instant answer. Freedom is not always found at the altar rail or in the prayer line but it is often made good over a period of time as we work through, talk through and pray through who we are and what we want. This is a holy re-enactment of the promise, seek and you will find.  And I am confident of this: God is at work in us, without exception, completing the work he began and we will recognise well fitting faith like the sheep who know the shepherd voice.

 

 

 

Burning bushes

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On my street, there were two trees ablaze with red leafed flames, a Pentecostal anointing in an age of faltering belief.

It’s a blessing to the eyes.

Weeks later I pass this place and the flames glow hot, but the tree is not burnt up. Today they kindle yellow across the dull sky of this more than lovely autumn.

On the ground leaves fallen, smoulder like ash in yesterday’s hearth. The sun burns low, casting gold amongst the thinning hedges and piles of leaves.

Hearing the audible voice of God is rare. In our sceptical age, believing the testimony of those who do is rarer still, but there are burning bushes on every street corner, and ordinary folk who are sure they have heard God speak.

Moses lived the strangest kind of orphaned life. Separated at birth from his Hebrew family and raised in the Pharaoh’s place, he fled leaving matters undone to make an uncertain home for himself, far from the life he had been given. Alone in the desert place, tending another man’s flocks, his eye was drawn to the strangest sight.

A bush flickering hot with flames.

It burned but it was not consumed.

The bush was on fire but it did not burn up and Moses was listening and watching more carefully than before. “I will go over and see this strange sight” he said. The Exodus account tells us that when God saw that Moses had gone over to look – then he spoke to him, calling his name from out of the burning bush, causing him to remove his shoes and hide his face.

The nights are drawing in, calling us home, out of the cold, this creeping stain of darkness, split like ink, daylight saving and so much less light for us to see by. Yet, there are burning bushes on street corners and when God saw us go to look, then he spoke.

How can we not compare the seasons of our calendar to the seasons of the soul? How can we not take comfort in the brilliance of autumn glory as winter falls around us? Why would we not scan our horizon and watch to see a burning bush and hear the voice of God?

It makes for the breaking of a heart, to feel alone in this world, to fear that God is silent, that he does not care for us. And it is truely the condition of being human that we know this loss. But we were made to face this and to grapple with it. There is a clear sighted envisioning beyond our doubt and fear which is why we wrap up warm and go out into the cold, looking for a burning bush in a near-winter landscape.

It will turn the eye, and then the soul,  back towards the blessings of God.