I have already noted that Advent is my favorite among the Church’s seasons. Today (Sunday) I had even more reason and experience to support my emotions.
We celebrated the Third Sunday of Advent at Mount Olive in good style (You can get another perspective on the day's events at my Sister Dash's blog here.) : The procession featured the “baby” choir (i.e., the really little kids) from the congregation's choir school, who sang the verses of the Kyrie, to which the congregation sang the responses. (And there is just something about little kids in black cassocks and white cottas that makes the anglophile in me almost swoon. Now if we could only get the little ruff-collars. And I remember when the youth choir wore skull caps, but that might be a little over the top, even for me. ) The Gospel reading focused on John the Baptizer, one of the really problematic figures in my theology of the Church (though see a later post here, where I quote William Stringfellow). The Vicar’s sermon was simply grand (and you can read a copy of it here eventually – I encourage it – although it does not adequately bring across her terrific humor, at the beginning, and then her sense of humility at the end). We welcomed new members – two of whom are returnees after a sojourn in another congregation. (It’s so good to have old friends back!)
And then, at the conclusion of the Pax, the lights went out – literally. All the lights went out, sparked on for one second, and then seemed to be out for good. And so they were until long after the conclusion of the mass. Now, Mount Olive is a kind of dark church building – English gothic with relatively narrow stained-glass windows, except for the taller and wider clerestory windows, which are also stained-glass, but which are way too high to lend much assistance to those of us on the floor. And since it was a dark and gloomy day (and very windy), there was very little light. It was almost vigil-like, quite dark with only the Advent wreath's three tapers (for once, I was almost glad for that wretched custom), the processional torches, the Eucharistic lights, and the candelabra -- and, oh yes, the "eternal light (no comment.)Oh, and we have candles mounted along the outside walls which emit pale blue light, but almost none.
Well, in true Mount Olive style, the “corrections” to accommodate the new situation were seamless (to use one worshipper’s word). During the offering, the choir sang an anthem a cappella (which may or may not have been the intended style: They may have known the piece so as to sing from memory, but also had ready access to a stash of candles to help them read.) The offertory canticle (printed in the bulletin) began with a pitch pipe (our congregation can sing four-part Bach without accompaniment, so no problem there) and went off without a hitch among those who can read by little light. (It wasn't totally unfamiliar to all of us, since we had sung it last week, but it is not an "ordinary" canticle.) But then there was the issue of lighting the texts for the presiding and assisting ministers. Well, no problem there, either.
The sacristan, one of Sister Dash’s colleagues, arranged for lighted tapers to be brought from the sacristy and handed them out to the other servers, who then gathered around the missal to enlighten it. Es war genug. Then for the communion: The sacristan approached three of the teenagers of the congregation to hold torches at the head of the center aisle, where communicants receive the bread and then turn to either side to drink of the chalice. The “intinction cup” ministers (we offer a common chalice and an intinction cup, to provide for various sentiments about the “drinking” mandate) held candles, so that communicants could see there. The teens, who have been trained as acolytes in the parish, glided into their jobs with nary a second-thought or misstep. (We are so lucky to have such talented and self-collected servers in our congregation.)
Well, by the time the “retiring procession” had retired, the congregation was ebullient. I think part of the excitement was that we had made it through an experience that not even the longest-term members could recall having occurred before. Another part of the excitement was a kind of arrogance, or -- better -- pride that nothing can get the best of us. And yet another, perhaps only "gut feeling" major aspect of this was the realization that this was an Advent event of the first rank.
The Advent imagery was on every hand. There was, most obviously, the contrasting light and dark. What can be more foundational to this season than waiting in the dark for the coming of the Light? Physical and spiritual darkness combined (we had a young visitor – about three years old – who was somewhat frightened by the dark and whose requests for light could be heard throughout the room), to be banished by a few and then more individual lights that eventually combined to banish some of the darkness.
And there was the lesson that the darkness can come at any time but will not defeat us.
That raises the issue of power: Earthly power (electricity, in this case) was withdrawn, but the power that matters could not be shut off. Thus, the power of the Word and of the Sacrament – the latter admittedly rendered somewhat less visible a word (St. Augustine) by the physical darkness – tamed, if it did not banish, that darkness. The power of the community staved off – even for Amelie, our young visitor – the fear of the darkness. (One lovely choir member eventually gave Amelie’s grandmother a lighted candle to help assuage Amelie’s fears, and it worked.) The power of the love of God found ways through the darkness to bring even the frail and relatively infirm forward to participate in the feast.
Advent is also about waiting for the unexpected. That’s sort of an oxymoron, but it’s true nonetheless. We cannot be quite sure that our waiting is fulfilled until He whom we await arrives. Expectation, watchfulness, surprise, questions (like John the Baptizer’s questions in today’s Gospel – thank you Vicar Jean for drawing that out), clear-eyed-ness: These are the stuff of Advent.
In one of my book discussion groups, we just finished a discussion of Gail Godwin’s novel Evensong. In that book, the main character, an Episcopal priest, is asked about faith. A dying friend asks her, “Do you believe that there is really anybody there? And she responds, “I’m not sure I believe as much as recognize. Belief seems to me something that is willed. But there are times when I definitely recognize the presence of something eternally beyond me working through me. … “
I am convinced that central to Advent discipline is discernment, careful consideration of what we see (and hear and feel, for that matter) in order to recognize what of our experience is of God. We ought and must seriously and critically consider the voices we hear (regardless of their source), the visions that appear to us, the emotions that well up in us. And we must match them to the Gospel to determine whether they are of the true God or some other being (benign or malevolent), whether they come from the light or advance the darkness. That’s why the virgins – wise and foolish – need oil in their lamps: They need to be able to see the coming-one’s face to determine whether he is the bridegroom. The Vicar noted in her sermon that John’s imprisonment had blinded and deafened him to the happenings involving Jesus and so he asked, “Are you he or ought we look for another?” Discernment and testing of spirits. Distinguishing true light from seductive darkness.
That happened at Mount Olive today. What a fortuitous bit of serendipity.
It drew to mind (although I know it’s not an exactly apt connection) another line from Evensong: At one point the narrator-rector remarks that her husband laughed “the surprised laugh of a reserved man ambushed by the gift of ludicrousness.” Ours was a ludicrous spectacle – the foolishness and the gaiety of this gathering of people who didn’t have the sense to shut down their gathering and go home when the failure of electricity made the agenda and paths -- and even heating -- unclear. But we laughed – and it was a smaller, quieter version of the laugh that we expect to laugh when our Advent waiting brings us to the Grand Finale.
The Light once came into darkness; He visited again today.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha! Come quickly.