Thursday, December 20, 2012

Finding joy in the desert.

I had an incredibly hectic day, the kind of day which seems to put something in my path every direction I took. I had the evening off, so I decided to go to the Advent supper at church and unwind with people I cherish.

It was a bit after 5pm, and as I pulling on to the freeway West-bound the sun was just at the last bit of its setting, and I beheld a gorgeous sight of black mountains outlined by the last bit of sunlight. It was the perfect contrast of gold and dark, had I not been driving I would have taken a picture, in fact it resembled one of the pictures which where shown of the Grand Canyon at a recent Bakersfield Symphony concert. It was then I realized the picture I was beholding was perhaps one of few clues left behind that this area was once mostly desert, and my mind went to the words of Thomas Merton.

This Advent, as last Advent, I have been reading "Thoughts in Solitude" by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. In the Bible, a trip to the desert seems to always assume this process by which someone undergoes some task or journey of self-discovery. The Hebrews had to wander in the desert for a ridiculously long time before they could "get it right" and reach the Promised Land. After his baptism, Jesus was sent by the Spirit to undergo fasting and temptation before he would begin his ministry. Merton writes that the desert was created by God to be itself, not to be tempered with by man, it offers nothing by way of survival and therefore the desert is perfect place for a person who truly desires to find their self and find dependency on God alone.

My feelings toward Bakersfield until recent years could be summed up in Merton's one word description of the desert: Despair. My whole life I felt I was raised in a bubble. Being gay in this town is doable, being just left of center politically is challenging, and dating is next to impossible. I've been reflecting recently on my failed plans to move to Fresno. A new life with the boyfriend (at the time), a bigger population, a chance to to leave this desert and start anew in what seemed like a utopia (which after further reflection, Fresno seems to be Bakersfield v2.0). God had other intentions for me, and after many prayerful struggles this year I appreciate what I have here. Had it not been for my home parish, and the Symphony, I probably would have made attempts to move on long ago before Joel had popped in the picture.  The discrepancies between this town and myself have definitely defined a large portion of who I am, in a good way. The despair of dating this year (well, or much lack of), has taught me not to just reaffirm my trust in God, but to find contentment in the gifts that I do have, the things which ensure my physical and spiritual survival.

Merton concludes the desert is everywhere, as is despair. The sample of spending 40 days in the desert is only a paradigm of the life which we live. "This then is our desert: to face despair, but not to consent...if we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, then we will never find him."

 Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I say, rejoice!". This last Sunday, the rose candle of Joy was lit in the Advent Wreath. The summary of Advent, waiting not for joy, but in joy, no matter the despairs the desert brings. It's a wonderful thing, the obscure idea that waiting for God in despair should bring joy. Psychologically, it's not practical. Thankfully, God's promises exist well beyond our/my idea of what's "practical".

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Advent according to...

Advent, the season of hopeful expectation. Or is it the season penitential preparations for the arrival a King? Or is the season of Incarnation, where the Divine and Profane intersect causing a rip in the space-time continuum which somehow actually fixes the world? There are several answers to the question of what Advent is and what it means, each with its group of proponents claiming that is has been done a certain way since before the Annunciation...

Advent is the first liturgical season of the Western Church calendar, starting no earlier than November 27th, starting the 4th Sunday before Christmas and lasting 4 weeks. The most common visual association is the Advent Wreath. Traditionally the Advent Wreath is a flat evergreen wreath with four candles surrounding which symbolize the four Sundays in Advent, with a taller candle in the center representing Christmas. The four Sundays represent the four centuries of silence between the Prophet Malachi and Jesus. Each candle has it's own meaning. The first candle is generally interpreted as Hope, but the other three have several meanings depending on which tradition a person is following which I don't care to dive into (having mini-themes in a major theme to me just seems kind of redundant).

At its core, Advent is the preparation for Christmas. How that preparation is used or interpreted can be summed up in two colors, a debate which my lucky non-liturgical Christian friends don't have to deal with: Purple, or Blue?

The Roman Catholic Church uses Purple, the Evangelical Lutherans use Blue, Methodists can use either, Purple is technically the official used in the Episcopal Church, while many congregations have switched over to Blue.

So, what's the big deal? I'll tell you. 

In ancient times, the color purple was associated with royalty as purple was an incredibly expensive color to dye. Liturgically, purple is associated with Christ as our royal King. Purple is also used and probably more associated with Lent and because of this, purple seems to have this baggage (I use that word as neutrally as possible) of penitence attached. While expecting the arrival of the Christ-child, the theme of the Second Coming of Christ the King is also highlighted. As in Lent, the preparation of the coming of Christ involves reflection on how we are living our lives, and how we ought to live our lives being mindful of our sin; thus the focus on penitence. The early practice of Advent make this very clear as Advent was a 40 day fast in the 4th Century (and still a season of fasting in Eastern Orthodoxy, in the equivalent season the Fast of the Nativity) with it's own version of Fat Tuesday (the Feast of St. Martin), where activities such as dancing and over indulgence in food were forbidden. The fast was relaxed down the line, but kept penitential in nature.

Blue has been seen on altars and wreathes more in the past thirty years, but the tradition isn't new considering it was used in Medieval until the Reformation, and was revived in the Oxford Movement in the 19th century in Anglicanism. In art, blue is often associated with Mary. And Mary, being the Theotokos or God-bearer  of the Incarnation, blue gives Advent a theme of hopeful expectation where we await the coming of Christ with joy, and not penitence.

Personally, I am proponent of using blue in Anglicanism, as blue connects back to our tradition in the Church of England, and it overall distinguishes Advent from Lent. But both camps have merit. Insert Via Media.

At it's core, Advent is about preparation. When a family is expecting the birth of child, all sorts of preparations are made. The women changes her activity patterns and dietary intake. Financial preparations are made. A room for the child is set aside. For me, making room in my life for Jesus must involve some penitence on some level. If that child is going to live in a room of mine, then I've got junk that needs to be cleaned out, and it call can't just be stashed in the closet (oh, the puns). The Gospel calls us to be watchful and expectant for that day when Christ returns. But it isn't the kind of preparation like when the VP of the company came to our location at work over the summer and we spent three weeks of fearful expectation that one wrong move and we were all fired. If anything, its like the long awaited reunion of two lovers, whose passion inspires in us to better ourselves not for the other person, but for the sake of loving ourselves enough to create a space for more love to exist  the other person.

Of course, in liturgical practice its very easy to fall into the trap off allowing passion and devotion to get stale, when liturgy is intended to do the opposite. Its always good to mix it up a bit and keep it fresh. I think if anything seasons such as Advent and Lent are intended for good habit building, its just a shame that both seasons are only separated by a few months. Things in liturgy should always express belief. I think to choose one side completely over the other misses the point. Do we believe that Jesus is merciful, or gracious? Isn't he both?

For me, Advent is about the Incarnation, God becoming man. The great unfathomable paradox that God chooses to reside in this mortal body which through the resurrection, he calls "good", and allowing that Incarnation to reside, until the final Incarnation where he returns in glory.