The Great Mystery-First Sunday of Advent
The Great Mystery-First Sunday of Advent.
During this pandemic time when so many of us are unable to attend church because we want to protect others, Advent is more important than ever. I'll be sharing some thoughts every Sunday through Advent to help myself plow through this time of stillness when I so often love to go to church for the ceremony surrounding the waiting time.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word adventus and means "coming". Since the 4th Century Advent has been a season of preparation in various ways although the most widely held is the build-up to the celebration of the birth of Christ. Advent wasn't explicitly tied to Christmas until the Middle Ages. Today, Advent lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Then there is the twelve day celebration of Christmastide that ends with the Day of Epiphany on January 6.
I am one of the few writers in contemporary literary fiction who write and talk about people of faith as major subject matter in my work. My favorite living writers who do this include Marilynne Robinson, Maurice Manning, Sonja Livingston, and Elizabeth Strout (I'm not comparing my writing to them--just some of our subject matter). Faith is not something that is often considered to be of polite conversation in the literary world and a few times people have told me that celebrating Christianity is celebrating the damage that so many churches have done to many people, especially in the LGBTQ community. I know that damage has happened because I have been subjected to it by the evangelical church all of my life; not only when I was a child and teenager growing up in the church, but even today, when I face almost daily discrimination in one way or another that is fueled by the rhetoric being spewed at those churches.
However, I know that many churches have done much good work, too. We can't negate them because of those that do damage. I also think it is a dangerous thing to equate churches with faith. One does not depend on the other at all. Many people I know who go to church everytime the door is cracked are the same people who do the least for others or strive the least to follow the true teachings of Christ. For more than twenty years I wandered in the wilderness without a church that accepted me for who I was before I finally found a congregation first in the United Church of Christ at Union Church in Berea, Kentucky. There everyone was welcome, no questions, no judgment. As I did more theological study I found that the church that worked best for me was the Episcopal Church and several years ago I became confirmed as an Episcopalian, a denomination that does a beautiful celebration of Advent. I will miss seeing this solemn ceremony this year as we are locked down, waiting out the pandemic.
But to those who question how I am can comfortably talk about my own faith and those who go a step further and tell me how they think believing in any kind of higher power is foolish, I always tell them that the best thing about it all, to me, is the mystery. I often think of God that way: The Great Mystery. I know one thing for sure: the mind of God is bigger than any of us can comprehend, which is why I so often look at the judgements people make backed by Scripture and shake my head. If anything is blasphemous, surely it's to assume we can know the mind of God or fully understand The Great Mystery.
All of this to say that Advent is a time of stillness, quiet, and meditation for me. A time of questioning. It's a time for me to ponder on the Great Mystery. Yes, I know that Christ was not certainly born on December 25. Yes, I think on questions of divinity and miracles. But it's the mystery that I love the most. Ever since I was a child I have felt a little fire burning at the center of my chest. Most times it felt like a flame made simultaneously of belief and doubt. Always it felt like a mystery.
Because music always helps, in any situation, here's a little playlist I've made for the First Sunday of Advent.
To close, this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian who was hanged in April 1945 for his efforts to stop Hitler and Nazism. His idea of mystery sounds a lot like empathy to me, and that makes good sense.
“The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery. We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery. Therefore, children have open, wide-awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by the mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don’t know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we sense that here we reach the boundary of our being, because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal, and that’s just what we cannot do with the mystery…. Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.”
*Photo by Silas House at Hindman Settlement School