The four Sundays in advance of Christmas make up the season that Christians call Advent, the “coming” or the “arrival.” The weeks provide a time to prepare spiritually for the two “comings” of Jesus — one that happened and one that is still expected — his birth and his return.
The celebration of these weeks has changed over time. In the last century, Advent has mostly emphasized waiting or happy anticipation. The candles (which are variously blue, purple and pink, or white) in the wreath represent four themes of hope, love, joy, and peace. With each passing week, as more candles are lit, light overcomes the deepening darkness of December days in expectation of Jesus’ coming.
There is, however, an older Advent tradition that seems oddly resonant this year. The four weeks lift up theological themes related to endings — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. As such, Advent was a season of penitence and warning, of confession and fasting, like a “little Lent.” This reading of Advent emerged in the early Middle Ages, reaching its zenith of spiritual popularity — perhaps not unsurprisingly — in the decades of the Black Death.
I’ve always found the older view of Advent morbid. Joy is scarce enough in our world, and why deny its presence in the dark arrival of winter? But, remembering how meaningful the old practice was during a time of pandemic, I wanted to return to it this year. For the next four Sundays, I’ll look at the traditional themes in some new ways, reflecting on them in relation to some of my favorite Advent poetry — the work of Madeleine L’Engle.
Two Readings from Madeleine L’Engle
From Redeeming All Brokenness, a prose reading:
As we move into Advent we are called to listen, something we seldom take time to do in this frenetic world of over-activity. But waiting for birth, waiting for death—these are listening times, when the normal distractions of life have lost their power to take us away from God’s call to center in Christ.
During Advent we are traditionally called to contemplate death, judgment, hell, and heaven. To give birth to a baby is also a kind of death—death to the incredible intimacy of carrying a child, death to old ways of life and birth into new—and it is as strange for the parents as for the baby. Judgment: John of the Cross says that in the evening of life we shall be judged on love; not on our accomplishments, not on our successes and failure sin the worldly sense, but solely on love.
…Advent is not a time to declare, but to listen, to listen to whatever God may want to tell us through the singing of the stars, the quickening of a baby, the gallantry of a dying man.
Listen. Quietly. Humbly. Without arrogance.
…In Advent we prepare for the coming of all Love, that love which will redeem all the brokenness, wrongness, hardnesses of heart which have afflicted us.
This Birth Has Death Forevermore Confused
This birth has death forevermore confused.
That God, the holy & immortal one
Should take on mortal flesh, should be abused,
Be killed—oh, how could such a thing be done?
What does this death then do to death?
Death grasps the holy body of the Lord,
Crushes the mortal flesh, lets side be gored—
Oh, God! has death not triumphed over life?
Why did you come to share our joy & pain?
Our feeble times of peace, our constant strife?
What did you think your fragile folk might gain?
I do not know the answer, Lord, but you,
Embracing death, made life forever new.
Advent 1: Death
I never knew my father’s mother, my grandmother, Elsie. She died at 26 after having been admitted to the hospital for an ailment no one understood. She had a premonition that she would never see her three young sons again, and she wrote my father a letter telling him she loved him, to be a good boy, and that she was going to heaven to be with Jesus. Within a few days, she was dead. My father was six.
It was early 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor was months in the future. The pain of the Great Depression lingered. My grandfather didn’t know how to care for three small boys. He delivered his two younger sons — my father and my Uncle Donald — to an orphanage. There, my father and uncle shared a bed in a dormitory with other abandoned children, where they were bathed once a week, fed sparingly, and went without affection. My father cried constantly, started wetting his bed again, and was unable to control his bowel movements. The matron forced him to wear his dirtied sheets during the daytime, shaming him to stop. I don’t know how long he survived there as he never spoke of it. I heard these stories from my mother.
Death terrified my father. He could never say the word. In addition to the early death of his mother, his beloved younger brother, who suffered from epilepsy, died a week after my parents returned from their honeymoon. To him, death was the cruelest and starkest abandonment, the destruction of home, comfort, companionship, and love. It cheated him of his mother, her care, his childhood. Death meant total brokenness, the end of everything.
Shortly before he died, we sat on the patio of his house in Arizona. He took a long drag on his cigarette — knowing the lung cancer he had fought was unstoppable — and he apologized to me: “I’m sorry for being distant,” he confessed, “I was afraid to get too close to you kids. Because everyone I ever loved died. I wanted you to be safe. But I always loved you.”
“I know, Dad,” were among my final words to him. “I know.”
Maternal death is multi-generational trauma. Because of my grandmother’s death, my father carried terror his whole life — passing it down to his children. I hate Halloween, the Day of the Dead, everything and anything goth; when people treat such things lightly, I cringe. Death is the destroyer of worlds, a horror.
So why would I want to think about death at Advent? Frankly, I don’t. I’m glad that Christians turned away from the grim penitential aspects of Advent’s medieval practice. But something else is true this year. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve never thought quite so much about death. About the genuine possibility that COVID might kill me or someone I love — as it has done to more than a million others around the world. 2020 has been a year of both avoiding and facing death. We don’t need penance or repentance — or any other guilt-ridden religious activity. But we surely need to consider what it has meant to be surrounded by a dread of death.
Thus, we move into the darkest part of the year here in the northern hemisphere, with the specter of the pandemic over us. The shortest days, the longest nights, a devastating winter. This is the time of cold, as the earth freezes, of ice and snow, nothing grows. In these climes, the birth of Jesus comes in this shadow-time, long past harvest and long before spring.
The two readings for today speak to my experience, my inherited dread of death. L’Engle reminds us that birth and death are intertwined. To give birth is to die to one’s old life. And every birth ends with death. What overcomes the tragedy of such existence? Its futility? Love. Even through death is the ultimate brokenness, love redeems all that is broken. It doesn’t stop death. But it does end it.
Like on the patio. Somehow, in admitting his fear, my father finally spoke the truth of his own life. On that evening, I understood how brave my father had been. Despite his fearing death, the loss of his own mother and brother, he had risked having children. He knew birth meant death, but he brought life into the world anyway. Being a father was an act of faith, a statement of hope in the face of despair. Even though death still wounded and haunted him, he wrestled its demons with creativity and love. I’m not sure that this made sense until he neared his end. As we waited, sitting together on a warm Arizona evening, we heard death’s approach. Yet love bound us, so strong and clear. We knew he would die. But somehow, he had come to the last of the fear. In the Advent of his life, he gave me its gift. Ending. Beginning. Death. Birth.
The Christian story is one of God being born. In effect, God died to God’s old life to enter into the mortal world, knowing full well that the end of human life is death. God-as-human shared the brokenness of death and, by sharing it, overcame it. Confounded death. Confused death. Opened the possibility that even through death comes new life. God joined with us in this creative love, the end of death’s dread.
For the risk of birth might be death, but it is also love, a kind of wild and heroic danger, embracing the fragility and the tenuousness of life to the point that terror disappears — that only courage and joy shine forth in the darkness.
What feels broken in your life right now? What has died for you in 2020? Have you been able to face loss directly? Can you trust waiting through this shadow time? Might something be birthing for you?
Know you are not alone feeling sadness or fear in these many months. But falling into despair is a sort of death. Light a candle of hope against all that has been lost.
God of unveiled truth,
in times of darkened sun and waning moon:
lift up our unknowing hearts,
and waken our sleeping love
to announce the coming dawn
of unexpected peace. AMEN.
— Steven Shakespeare
We prepare to welcome Christ Jesus, Messiah
For beneath the surface of your story
is an inescapable fact
You entered this world
as vulnerable as any one of us
in order to nail that vulnerability to the cross.
Our fears, our insecurities and our sins
all that can separate us from God
exchanged by your Grace for Love.
— John Birch, Faith & Worship
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