Advent offers a counterbalance to our frantic lives. It invites us to a darkening, quiet, reflective time. It asks us to ponder with Mary the order of a disordered world. With her we wonder why God picked that time and place to reach down and give birth to a new way of being? Can we birth that hope again, this season, in a world gone mad with consumption? Can we take one step away from the glitzy enticements of the season? If you are reading this, it is a certainty that you have already taken many steps away from the things of this world. Can we all go just a little deeper, no matter where we are in our advocacy? Can we? Somewhere deep inside us there is a voice that says “please”, please put aside the frenzy. Listen to the urging of that voice! Name one thing that will take you deeper into the season, and then go there.
We invite you to take a breath and feel the peace that the Prince of Peace wants each of us to have in honor of his coming. Six times you will be blessed with an advent reflection that we hope will take you deeper. Let us journey together to Bethlehem.
CHRISTMAS EVE - Life-Bearing Darkness
Tonight, in many of our congregations, we will hear this well-known refrain from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined” (Isa. 9:2). Here, at the end of advent, on the cusp of the emergence of divine life into the world, we turn to the image of divine light as a symbol of the mystery of incarnation. In the gospel of John, we read, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9).
But what about the darkness? Divine life inhabits not just the light, but also the dark. In becoming so enamored of the light, we might very well miss the God who comes in the still of the night. In a season dripping with candles, stars, tree lights, and flashing neon sale signs, how can we find our way to that dark and quiet stable?
One of the many gifts of the nativity story is its insistence upon the dark as the site for incarnation. It was under the canopy of stars that Mary birthed the child, and that the shepherds and (eventually) the magi, too, found their way to the presence of God in the infant. It is upon a blanket of deep, rich, dark soil that this story unfolds. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Even in the dark, the seed sprouts and grows—we know not how—while God goes on giving birth to the truly human in Christ and in us.”
And so, to go deeper on this night demands an embrace of the dark, even in a culture that so conditions us to illumine every dark room, corner, plot of earth, and roadway. Going into that deep darkness is the only way we’ll ever see that star. We might associate darkness with melancholy, with grief, or with fear. And all of those things are surely present. But in ecological context, we also know the beauty of darkness: It represents the health of the soil, the generation of nutrients, and a posture of restraint and rest. To thrive, living things need darkness as much as they need light. The mystery of creation, whether a seedling or a human being, begins in deep darkness. A darkness that demands our attention, our gratitude, and our tending.
When I was around six or seven years old, I learned to fall in love with the dark quiet that enveloped our family as we made our way back home from the Christmas Eve worship service at the First Presbyterian Church of Asheboro, NC. The very same darkness that blanketed us when we took family camping trips subtly beckoned to us as we left worship on that night. Having lifted high our candles in the dim sanctuary during the third verse of “Silent Night,” we each blew out our candles, extinguishing the flame just before emerging into the crisp darkness of that sacred eve. Although the extinguishing of the flames is a rather practical matter, it might serve as an invitation to meet God in the darkness, if we are bold enough to accept it.
Like the shepherds, tonight we keep watch, wait, and finally make our way into the darkness, embracing it for the mysterious gifts it bears.
The Uses of Sorrow
by Mary Oliver
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Jennifer Ayres is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Religious Education at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Her book, Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology, was published by Baylor University Press in October 2013. Jennifer lives and gardens in Decatur, Georgia.
CHRISTMAS DAY - Let Heaven and Nature Sing!
Mary Treasured these Words and Pondered Them in her Heart (Luke 2:19)
As I moved my boat out of the brackish swamp into a freshwater stream to collect drinking water, a baby moose lay on the riverbank. It was perfectly framed in a bed of spring grass, its tiny body and disproportionately large eyes identifying it as a newborn. In that moment I was filled with wonder; I wanted to stop my little boat and just be with this marvel!
Every birth is a marvel. Yet on this Christmas Day we remember that the birth of Jesus was especially marvelous. Exalted angels combined with lowly shepherds to impart amazing news that is for everyone: the Savior was born! If Mary pondered these things in her heart, we should, too.
In its praise of God Psalm 139:13,15 shows that each of us is born from two mothers:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb...
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven together in the depths of the earth.
In the birth of Jesus we humans see God’s communion with us, as Jesus was mysteriously “knit together in (Mary’s) womb.” And in the birth of Jesus we see God’s communion with all creation, as Jesus was mystically “made in secret, intricately woven together in the depths of the earth.” It is a marvel indeed!
Looking at that baby moose, I realized our relatedness—we were both creatures of God, intricately woven together in the depths of the earth. I also realized our common need for salvation—me from my sin, and this world from human-caused environmental collapse.
In Alaska, my home, ice is vanishing in astonishing fashion—vanishing from the polar seas, from the glaciers and from the permafrost of the ground. Animals that depend on ice are suffering, plants that depend on permafrost are suffering and people who, depend on the frozenness of the ground for food, home and livelihood, are losing it all.
Yet it is to us, a broken world and a broken people, that good tidings comes. In Jesus’ birth God proclaimed God’s relatedness to all creation, including humanity. In Jesus God took action to save us from the sin, which alienates us from God and from our fellow creatures. Because of God’s communion with us all, there is a living hope in Jesus Christ.
Indeed, in due time Mary’s baby will grow up. And Jesus will tell us that we really have a third mother: we will discover ourselves to be born yet again, born of the Spirit this time, called and empowered to live into a new way of being human for the good of this whole earth.
“Let heaven and nature sing!”
Oh God, you have birthed a world that produced the blue of the ice, the fire of the aurora, and the thriving, music-like rhythm that is life. Today, in Jesus you are born to us. Touch us, we pray, with your salvation and your vision for abundant life.
Rev. Curt Karns is a life-long Alaskan, who currently serves as executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Yukon. Rev. Karns and his wife, Cindee live in an experimental, eco-friendly bioshelter, and operate the Alaskan Permaculture Learning Center. In September of 2014 the Yukon Presbyterians for Earthcare are hosting an Eco-Tour For Presbyterians to see the four signs of global warming readily visible in Alaska: vanishing glaciers, vanishing sea ice, permafrost melt, and affects on flora and fauna (including people).