The night is far spent . . .
Yes, there’s another half to that sentence, but it’s too early to write it down. We still have weeks of days growing shorter, of darkening afternoons, of lying down to sleep in the middle of all that is not yet. While the new year we mark with our shared calendar comes with countdowns and confetti, the new year that begins with Advent starts with a pregnant pause and silence as thick as the dark.
We are waiting: preparing, anticipating, getting ready.
Last night, Ginger, Jay, and I walked down to Fullsteam, our neighborhood pub, with Ella, our most social Schnauzer, in tow. She was the hit of the bar. One guy came over to pet her and stayed to talk to us. His wife is eight and a half months pregnant. “This is my last night out before the baby comes,” he said, with more excitement than regret. He was already marking time by the birth.
I got home last night and realized today would have been my friend David’s fifty-ninth birthday had he not died suddenly last December. He was one who incarnated the presence of Jesus as much as anyone I know and he died for no good reason. When I sat down to write tonight, I got word that the son of a friend here in Durham died on Thursday. He was born only two weeks ago. Even as I prepare for Christ to be born again in my time and in my culture, I am marking time by who is not here, by whom I have lost, by death. As we talk about Advent as a season of waiting in the best sense of the term, I realize I am waiting for and watching as my father-in-law disappears due to his Alzheimer’s. He walks the halls of our home, lost in the short passageway between his room and the sunroom where he watches television, lost in the corridors of his mind, trapped in the excruciating pause that is now his life. Sometimes when he’s moving down the hall, we ask where he’s going and he says simply, “I don’t know,” and then waits for further instructions. This is some of the pain I know of, and I am barely scratching the surface of the shared pain of humanity.
The night is far spent and its taking names.
Our Hanging of the Greens service, which marks the beginning of Advent, centers around the various traditions that Christianity appropriated over the years to make them part of our expression of the hope and faith we find in Christmas. As the holly, evergreen wreaths, poinsettias, and lighted trees were brought in and we heard the stories, I realized I am a part of a faith tradition, a citizen of a country, and a speaker of a language all of which have thrived on appropriation, by which I mean they have found ways to take what they find interesting around them and make it part of themselves as a way of improving and growing – and, sometimes, conquering.
The particular point in the service where it hit me was when two children brought in the poinsettias. The legend, which came from Mexico, told of a little girl who had nothing to bring the Baby in the manger, so she picked a plain branch. By the time she gave it to Jesus, it had blossomed into the beautiful flower we see at Christmas. The story has the same magic realism as a good Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, where healing happens because something is transformed by hope, or pain, or tears, or love.
The Gospel passage for today wasn’t pointing to Bethlehem quite yet, a reminder that endings are prelude to beginnings. Jesus was talking about the end of the world, using a break-in as metaphor:
But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
Whether with a bang or with a whimper, the world ends with about as much warning as Reuben’s Alzheimer’s or the little girl’s flowering branch. The world ends over and over everyday all around us without much regard for purpose or preparation. We know the thieves are coming and we can’t stay awake because we’re exhausted.
The night is far spent and has dragged us with it.
Ritual, as an act of faith, is meaningful repetition. The words we read and the songs we sing invite us to move with the sacred and subversive muscle memory of all those who have come before us lighting one candle at a time in the face of the gathering dark, telling the stories over and over, sharing soup and bread and hope, and waiting as the world ends again and again for another beginning.
The night is far spent . . . .