We are approaching the threshold of winter.
Life is being drawn into the earth, painlessly descending down into the very heart of herself.
And we as natural human animals are being called to do the same ....
But many find the descent into their own body a scary thing indeed, fearing the unmet emotions and past events that they have stored in the dark caves inside themselves, not wanting to face what they have so carefully and unkindly avoided.
This winter solstice time is no longer celebrated as it once was, with the understanding that this period of descent into our own darkness was so necessary in order to find our light ….
This modern culture teaches avoidance at a max at this time; alcohol, lights, shopping, overworking, over spending, bad food and consumerism.
Here we are on the brink of winter, in the season of Advent. Somehow this time of year always seems to sneak up on me. Thanksgiving dinner is barely consumed and the dishes washed, and my neighbors are dashing outside to string lights and decorations on their houses and in their yards. Some of them started weeks before that. At this time of year, I often feel like a slouch, lagging behind and trying to catch up. There are a lot of activities and preparations to get ready for Christmas. Many of these preparations are fun and exciting. They are highly social. They can bring great joy. And they can stretch people a little thin. They all happen while people continue to do their jobs, go to school, take care of their families, and so on.
And, if we aren’t paying attention, they can have a way of distracting us from the other gifts of the season. They can get in the way of our noticing the gifts of Advent—the darkness, the quiet, the inward journey, and the mysterious way that hope emerges even amid the tragic. The hectic demands and exciting activities can become so much the focus of this time of year that there is little or no time or space left for this interior spiritual work. Some of us may even try to avoid that interior work because it can be uncomfortable and even scary.
Brigit Anna McNeill writes “that many find the descent into their own body a scary thing indeed, fearing the unmet emotions and past events that they have stored in the dark caves inside themselves, not wanting to face what they have so carefully and unkindly avoided.”
And so Advent comes along and invites and pushes us to go into the caves of ourselves, to examine our unmet emotions, and to reflect on past events, including hard events as well as current events. That doesn’t always seem like a gift. I think that’s why we sometimes avoid it. We don’t know what we will find there. We suspect we might come face-to-face with our own mistakes and unfulfilled dreams, and that may require more of us than we are prepared for.
Our fear has to do with our uncertainty: Will the light in the world, the light in my own heart and life, return? Is it possible to find joy after tragedy? Why, we might wonder, should we devote time to those difficult questions. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be about joy and peace? Aren’t we supposed to be happy?
Indeed it is about joy and peace and hope. Yes it is. But joy and peace and hope are not superficially attained. And our happiness can’t be forced. One of the mysteries of life is that joy and peace and love and especially hope arrive alongside the more difficult emotions and losses, even the tragedies of our lives.
Advent offers us no guarantees. But it holds out so much possibility. It reminds us of the possibility. If we don’t take the time to honor the descent into our own hearts, we may miss the chance to go inward into the recesses of ourselves to reconnect to those possibilities. We may miss the chance to reconnect to our dreams and longings, and rekindle a sense of hope.
Anyone who is dealing with an illness or companioning a loved one during an illness understands well the significance of that descent into the self. Because they are already living in Advent times, in times of uncertainty. Advent invites them to hold open possibility and hope.
Anyone who is dealing with depression or loneliness or addiction understands the significance of that descent into the self. Because they are already living in Advent times. Advent invites them to hold open hope and believe that things can change.
Anyone who is waiting at the border longing to find asylum from the violence and threat for themselves and their children knows the significance of that descent into the self. They are already living in Advent times. They are caught in uncertainty. And yet Advent invites them to persevere and to hold out hope of liberation.
For all of us, this time of Advent, of wintering, of preparation, speaks to what it means to live in that in between space. It teaches how, despite the uncertainty, to seek the light of hope for what can yet be. How, it asks, can good be reborn in the world? Wrestling with this question is profound spiritual work.
How we do this when so much in the world seems uncertain, unstable, and unwelcoming is a part of the mystery of our human existence. I know that for many of us this has been a difficult year—personally and politically. Amid so many challenging events, this call to hope can be a bit of a puzzle.
So let me offer two examples of the mysterious ways that hope emerges from tragedy from our collective lives. In Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue a gunman killed 11 people. Six others were injured. Those who survived were also seriously impacted. The killing took so much from that religious and local community. The shooting was a terrible thing. Yet we saw that the members of the synagogue had each other. Those who survived had their lives. And we also saw something else happen—how people showed their humanity and their kindness.
In an interview Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Tree of Life Synagogue was asked about what if anything has given him hope. He started off answering that question by sharing that the night before the shooting he was not very hopeful. He had said to his wife, “I just can’t take this anymore.” He meant the news, the hatred, divisions in this country, and the treatment of refugees. And then the shooting happened the very next day. He says what’s given him hope since then is that:
I’ve gotten a few pieces of hate mail, I have to tell you, but not many. Very small percentage. That gives me hope. I think there [are] good people. The teens of Parkland gave me hope. . . . There’s a lot to be thankful for. Even at this tragic time, we have to consider that. I spoke to some of the survivors, or the people who didn’t make it to synagogue, who are feeling guilty. I said, “You’ve been given the gift of life. Appreciate that and make the most of it.” . . .
There are good people in the world. We just have to do good things for other people. If we do that I think we’ll end up being OK. (“Why a Rabbi From the Tree of Life Synagogue Still Has Hope," Nov. 6, 2018)
California offers a second example. The camp fire that swept a path of destruction was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. In Paradise, California, more than 80 people were killed by the fire, and the entire town of 27,000 people was leveled. About 150,000 surrounding acres of countryside were charred.
Denise Scott who grew up in Paradise has 48 relatives there. They all lost everything. But they are alive. And they are grateful to be alive. They are grateful to have each other. A friend of Denise Scott’s, Kelly Laflamme says, the “lone silver lining of this historic fire is the extraordinary human kindness flooding in from neighboring cities and around the world. Clothing. Money. Food.” (“Thanksgiving in Paradise after deadly California fires shows #humansaregood,” Marco della Cava, USA TODAY, Nov. 21, 2018)
Human kindness. Good people. Love and support. It can be a challenge to keep affirming that humans are good, that life is good, that light will return. Yet Unitarian Universalism teaches this very thing. Our faith calls us to affirm human worth and dignity. Our faith calls us to believe in the goodness of the human spirit and to see more than the worst examples of what we humans can do. Our faith calls us to come together across differences, despites differences, to help each other and to heal the world.
Unitarian Universalism asks a lot of us. Advent asks a lot of us. This Advent time is not a passive state. Hope is a deep dive into the heart. We don’t let events take their course or simply hope for the best while we go into hibernation in the comfort of a warm well-appointed home.
Rather this time of year is when we take time to go inward to, as McNeill says, reconnect, relearn and reclaim our hopes and dreams so that we can “[bring] winter back to a time of kindness, love, rebirth, peace and unburdening instead of a time of dread, fear, depression and avoidance.” This is a time to embrace the mystery that kindness and peace can be brought back. That they are already here.
There’s a quote from writer Anne LaMott that offers some good advice for Advent. She says: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” I hope you will take time to unplug this month. Even a few minutes each day to breathe, to listen, to be with your own inner self, to light a candle, or to say a prayer can prepare you for the coming of the light. It can help you find hope even when hope is hard to find.
Amen. Blessed be.