November 30, 2014

Advent I Year B

In the Christian story, played out yearly through the liturgical seasons, there is a time for waiting. It is called Advent, and we begin that season today. 

All waiting is a kind of hunger. All hunger is a kind of waiting. You can fill up your life with good and worthwhile things, genuine and valuable tasks, absorbing and deserving projects, admirable and interesting people; but suddenly, you get moments when you see with piercing clarity that it’s all a distraction, all a way of making you so busy that you don’t need to think about the one thing you desire above all else, and long for with your whole being, and need like a hungry hole in your stomach.

You can deal with waiting through distraction, through busyness and fluster and hurry and entertainment; but when all your distractions have expired, the waiting’s still there for you, gnawing at your soul like a hungry dog growling and pawing at the back door.

In my undergraduate years I worked for a very high-end haberdashery, a men’s tailored clothing store. And one of the sayings I learned in those days was, “Don’t just mind the quality -- feel the width!”
In other words, “Don’t just judge that the material comes from the best fabric, see how much of it there is, so we can make the garment you want.”

It’s a parable for what we do in our lives to hide ourselves from the depths of our struggles and sadness and pain. “Never mind our deepest desires -- see how easy it is to occupy ourselves with our trivial ones! Don’t distress yourself about the things that really matter -- see how quickly you can get your hands on the things that don’t!” It’s perfectly possible to turn your whole life into a distraction, a whole enterprise of feeling the width. 

The church has a season for helping us set aside our distractions and get profoundly in touch with the powerlessness of waiting. It’s called Advent. In Advent, we dismantle our elaborate defenses and, for a few weeks face up squarely to our deepest yearnings, our unresolved longings and our rawest needs. But Advent is also about a confidence deeper than our needs, a hope more far-reaching than our desires, a future more comprehensive than our most poignant yearnings.

In our self-protection, we habitually say to ourselves, to one another and even to God, “Never mind the quality; feel the width. Let’s just make ourselves busy and perhaps we’ll forget about it.” In Advent, God says to us, “Never mind the width. Your life isn’t about quantity of activity or length of days. Let go of the width. Feel the depth.”

The answer to the agony of waiting isn’t width. It’s depth. Just this once, in this Advent moment, feel the depth of your life, and look into the deep heart of God.

Advent says, “Yes, you’re hungry. Yes, you long for fulfillment and resolution and completion and consummation. Yes, you’re aching all over; if you stopped your incessant activity and paused for one second to look in the mirror, you might be faced with disappointed dreams and deflated desires and unmet longings and dashed aspirations. Life hasn’t turned out as you trusted it would; it feels like everyone else has it easier than you; it’s sometimes impossible to find the patience to keep going; you feel if you for one moment admitted your grief, it would crush you and incapacitate you and disable you from functioning in any respectable way.

Advent goes to the bottom of our waiting. But Advent doesn’t stop there. Advent goes under and around our waiting.
Advent also says, gently, cherishingly and tenderly, “No. No, this isn’t the way the story ends. No, God isn’t ignoring you or punishing you. This isn’t God’s last word on the matter. God hasn’t finished with you. This groaning, this aching, this longing won’t be your eternal condition. God came in Christ to be with you, to groan with your groan, to ache with your ache, to yearn with your yearning. God in Christ came to show you a yearning that is greater even than your yearning, a grief that is greater even than your grief, a longing that is greater even than your longing -- a longing for you.

Christ rose from the dead to show you how the story ends, that all your pain and agony and tears will be taken up into glory, that all your sadness will be made beautiful, and all your waiting will be rewarded. Christ ascended into heaven to show you that you’ll spend eternity with God, that your hunger will be met in God’s banquet, that everything you long for will be exceeded and overwhelmed in the glory of the presence of God, and that you’ll finally realize how achingly hungry God has always been for you.

Just for this moment in Advent, dare to feel the depth. Never mind the width. If you’re tired of waiting, go deeper. Feel the deep texture of life. Eternal life isn’t an infinitely extended version of what we have now; it’s a deeper version of what we have now. If you want a glimpse of eternal life, even amid the sadness and the longing of waiting, go deeper.

Remember all those people who seemed to have everything you didn’t have? Go deeper and see who they really are and what they truly long for, and feel your jealousy begin to melt into compassion. Go deeper into your fears and come out of the bottom of them, and let your hunger become hope. Go deeper into your loneliness, and make a companion of the truth you find there. Feel the wonder of your life; sense the mystery of your being here at all. And receive all the rest as a bonus, a gift, a blessing.

Advent isn’t an escape. It’s an encounter with the time that’s deeper than our time, a time we call eternal life. It’s a discovery of a longing that’s deeper than our longing, the longing we call God’s waiting for us. It’s an experience deep down and through the bottom of our experience, a place where grief is no longer isolating but companionable, where alienating hurt becomes tender wisdom, where unfulfilled longing becomes the sculpting of a greater hole for grace.

It’s hard to do Advent all year round. It’s almost easier to be left alone in our waiting. But just this once, this Advent, take the risk on God that God’s taken on you. Feel the quality. Feel the depth. Go deeper and keep digging. Keep digging until you find you’ve dug deep into the heart of God.