The Edge of Knowing: An Advent Reflection

I offered this reflection as part of a contemplative retreat on Saturday, December 3rd at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The theme of the retreat was Be Born in Us: Preparing for the Advent of Christ.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ -Luke 1:39-45

Imagine: two women stand, side by side, at the edge of the world. 

Behind them, receding from view, the conventional lives that they expected—lives of predictable joy and predictable sorrow, all held safely within the boundaries of what they already understood. Behind them, now, the future that they had been preparing for—the one that the world had prepared them for from their earliest days.

Here they stand, bearers of good news carried on the lips of angels. Here they stand, backs turned on all of those old certainties, facing instead toward a great unknown. 

True, the villagers in this unnamed Judean hill town might just see two women like any other, shoulder to shoulder, staring out at nothing in particular. Hands instinctively resting upon their bellies. Two regular women, pausing to catch their breath, perhaps, caught up in a memory, or a daydream, or a question.

And why has this happened to me? asks Elizabeth.

They might still look the same as before, but inside, it feels as though they are standing at the edge of the earth, at the edge of a wide and restless sea, knowing that whatever must come next is out there beyond the solidity of the ground beneath their feet. But how does one step out into the unknown? How does one learn to walk on water?

The sun is coming out. The light is bright in their eyes.

Are they weeping? Are they laughing? Maybe both? Who can say? 

But at the very least, they are willing.

Yes, let it be done according to your word. Blessed are we among women.

For Mary and Elizabeth, one just beginning her life and one late in her years, there is a new type of kinship on this day. Not just one of blood, and not just because they both find themselves unexpectedly bearing a child in their womb.

No, they are kindred spirits in this moment because they, like so many others before and after them, have come to the edge of what they know, of who they thought they were, and now must ask themselves: 

How do I prepare for whatever comes next?

How do I prepare for the things nobody told me about? The things I could not have seen coming? How do I prepare for the bottom dropping out, for the unimaginable news at the door?

And how do I prepare for God, who comes like a thief in the night, making off with my comforts and my complacency, leaving me instead with strange, shadowy miracles and a song on my lips, only half-understood?

How do I prepare when I could not have ever prepared for this?

These, ultimately, are questions for all of us. And at their heart, they are Advent questions. 

Because Advent, far from simply being a cozy, quiet season ahead of Christmas, is actually a season of learning how to live with that which is unknown and unresolved in our hearts and in our world.

It is the season of waiting and of preparation for Christ, but it is also the season that reminds us that preparation only brings us so far, because what lies ahead—the fullness of who God will be for us, who God will ask us to be for Him—is inevitably surprising and more expansive and more wondrous than we can imagine. It demands all, even as it redeems all.

What will be revealed to us, Lord, when you arrive? What will be revealed about us when you arrive? How can we ever prepare ourselves for you, when you are so much more than we understand?

And yet, even as we ask such unanswerable questions, even as we stand facing the unknown, there is new life stirring within us, leaping with joy at the promise of His appearing.

So we come here today to ask such questions, to notice this joy, to find kinship with Mary and Elizabeth: to dare to believe that God can indeed be born in each of us, even if we feel utterly unprepared for that to be possible. Even if it scares us a little bit. 

It should scare us a little bit, if we’re honest. The truly important things always do.

I invite you to consider what you need this year during Advent—if there is a prayer or a question on your heart in this season of your life. I invite you, right now, to take a moment and close your eyes and call it to mind. 

Feel the significance of that need or prayer or question within you, how your body holds it. Is it light? Is it heavy? Is it comforting? Is it unsettling?

What is God calling forth from within you?

My hope is that you will carry that intention with you in this season, that you will spend some time being very honest with God and with yourself—that you will consider what it is that you need, and who you are becoming, and that you will name these things—whether in conversation with others or in the silence of prayer with God.

Because the strange thing is that even if we cannot perfectly prepare for the unknown future, it is in knowing God and ourselves more deeply, and in knowing one another more deeply, that we will be able to bear it, whatever comes, whenever it comes. 

Even if, sometimes, it feels like you are standing at the edge of the world, remember that you are not standing there alone. You are in solidarity with Mary and Elizabeth and with every person who has ever longed to let the powerful love of God be born in them, to transform them, to take them out beyond certainty, beyond complacency, into the wide and eternal mystery of grace.

Today we step out upon those waters, trusting that they will hold. Trusting the spirit of God who lives and moves within us. Trusting that the life of God which we carry will ultimately carry us

For this is, in the end, how we truly prepare: by being bearers of love. By letting God’s love be born in us each day, no matter what happens. Standing side by side in the light of sun, facing forward, saying yes, saying come, saying even though I will never be ready, I am willing. Blessed are we. Blessed are we.

Are we weeping? Are we laughing? Maybe both? Who can say?

But we are willing. Yes, whatever comes, let us be willing.

Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.