THE FOUR SUNDAYS in advance of Christmas make up the season of 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. Advent emphasizes waiting and anticipation. The candles (which are variously blue, purple and pink, or white) in the wreath represent four themes of hope, love, joy, and peace.
There is, however, an older Advent tradition. The four weeks lifted up theological themes related to endings — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. As such, Advent was a season of penitence and fasting, like a “little Lent.” This view of Advent emerged in the Middle Ages, reaching its zenith of spiritual popularity — perhaps not unsurprisingly — during the Black Death.
I’ve always found medieval Advent morbid. But, remembering how meaningful the old practice was during a time of sickness and suffering, I wanted to revisit it this year. Pandemic Advent. COVID Advent.
This Advent, I’ve explored the traditional themes in new ways, reflecting on them in relation to some of my favorite seasonal poetry — the poems of Madeleine L’Engle.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s theme is Hell.
TWO POEMS by Madeleine L’Engle
Into the Darkest Hour
It was a time like this,
war & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss –
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was a time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight –
and yet the Prince of bliss came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is:
with no room on the earth,
the stable is our heart.
All Heaven with Its Power
Lord Jesus, in this fateful hour
I place all Heaven with its power
And the sun with its brightness
And the snow with its whiteness
And the fire with the strength it hath
And the lightning with its rapid wrath
And the winds with their swiftness along their path
And the sea with its deepness
And the rocks with their steepness
And the child in the manger
Sharing our danger
And the man sandal-shod
Revealing our God
And the hill with its cross
To cry grief, pain, and loss
And the dark empty tomb
Like a Heavenly womb
Giving birth to true life
While death howls in strife
and the bread and the wine
Making human divine
And the stars with their singing
And cherubim winging
And Creation's wild glory
Contained in His Story
And the hope of new birth
On this worn stricken earth
And His coming, joy-streaming
and the earth with its starkness
All these we place
By God's Almighty Help and grace
Between ourselves and the powers of darkness
(This poem is based on and incorporates “The Rune of St Patrick”)
Advent 4: Hell
Three nights ago, my family turned on an evening cable news show, and listened to the headlines. After a couple minutes, my daughter said, "We are in hell. We are in freaking hell."
When the medieval church assigned “Hell” to the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I’m certain they wanted to scare people about their eternal state — to straighten up and get right with God to prepare for Jesus’ coming. I’m equally certain that those preachers weren’t thinking about the hell that we humans make right here on earth.
But we’ve got a whole lot of hell this year. Right here. And people are scared about what is going on in the world.
The horrible headlines have me reflecting on these verses, familiar words for many, from Luke 2:
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, goodwill among people!’
It is a beautiful vision — the angels, the heavens singing. No matter the angelic announcement, however, the world was still in the shadow of sin. Jesus was born. But Caesar was on the throne. The Messiah had come. But Israel was occupied, a client state of Rome. Peace and goodwill were proclaimed. Yet violence remained the power of empire.
Peace! Hark! Peace.
And yet no peace.
“It was a time like this,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle, “War & tumult of war, a horror in the air…” A time like this there came a star, a child born, the “Prince of bliss.” A time like this long ago. And so Jesus comes again in a time like this now.
This is a king born into a broken world and, finding no room on the earth, the king was born into the the “stable” of our hearts. The kingdom of heaven is here, yet not here. It is within.
While that is true, it has also seemed a bit of an escapist cop out to me. While we may know, see, and experience the power of that kingdom within, what kind of peace on earth is that? A sort of navel-gazing realm of personal serenity while the world falls to pieces?
I don’t think that either the New Testament nor L’Engle’s poetry ultimately allows for only a spiritualized and internal kingdom. The second poem points in another direction. When faced with evil “in this fateful hour,” we are armed with word and story — the power of creative word in the world, the power of a story of birth, danger, and new birth — these redeem, these remake the earth. Between ourselves and hell, we recite these sacred words and tell the story, summoning the mystery of bread and wine, of cherubim song, and of all Creation’s glory.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word is both shield and sword against the powers of hell. Yes, we may be in hell. The world may be hellish. COVID is hell. Our political crisis is hell. The climate crisis is truly hell. But there is another story, another song, a different word. A word we can speak and a word we can act upon. Bishop John Shelby Spong said, “Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being.”
Peace has been born. We wait for its fullness. But we don’t give in to our fears of hell, either the one that stalks us here, or the hell that haunts our nightmares. Instead, we claim the power of the Christmas story to bless, to redeem, to transform the stark earth. While “death howls in strife,” we embrace and embody the poetry of God and beat back the walls of hell.
Make ready the stable of your heart. Fear not. And get busy with the work of peace.
O God our disturber,
whose speech is pregnant with power
and whose word will be fulfilled:
may we know ourselves unsatisfied
with all that distorts your truth,
and make our hearts attentive
to your liberating voice,
in Jesus Christ. Amen.
God of shadows and echoes, darkness and light, help us to be still in our dark moments, our waiting times, our uncertainties. And when morning comes, show us how to greet the dawn without trying to make sense of the amazing light.
God of flood and fire,
calling us to turn
from dead halls
echoing with greed:
may the gift of your Spirit
come to us from another place,
burning with life and a hope
that will not be quenched;
through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come.
God of the waiting, wait with your world.
Turn anger into reconciliation, and our lack of hope into courage,
so that our waiting may be over and all the things of darkness shall be no more.
AND THANK YOU for joining me in these Advent reflections. You can re-read them online at the main page for The Cottage. You’ll also find all of my past essays and articles there. I’m always grateful when you share the newsletter with your friends.