11 December 2011/Advent 3B –Magnificat/Psalm 126/1 Thessalonians 5:16-24/John 1:6-8,19-28
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Advent Wreath: Part 1
Advent means “coming.” What is coming is the coming of Christ – as in “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” For four weeks before Christmas Christians reflect on this promised return of Christ as we prepare to celebrate the feast of his birth – the baby Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.
Ancient Northern Europeans often made evergreen wreaths long before Christianity. According to Wikipedia: “The circle symbolized the eternal cycle of the seasons while the evergreens and lighted candles signified the persistence of life in the midst of winter. Some sources suggest the wreath—now reinterpreted as a Christian symbol—was in common use in the Middle Ages, others that it was established in Germany as a Christian custom only in the 16th century.” With some scholars insisting it was adapted in 19th Century Germany. All that is clear is that it was first a so-called pagan practice adopted by the church well into the Christian era.
One notes that as we light a new candle each week in Advent, the days are getting shorter and darker. Until that day when a new light shines in the darkness – Christmas – the birth of Jesus, of whom Saint John writes that he is the light that shines in the darkness, the darkness has not overcome the light, the light is the life of men.
There is a story about the evergreen trees and shrubs. When the great Creator Spirit was creating the world, he wished to give a gift to each creature. He set up a kind of a contest to determine just what gifts would be most fitting for which living things he had placed upon the earth. In the deep of winter he ordered all the trees of the forest to stay awake and keep watch over all creation for seven days and seven nights, and those that did would receive a special gift.
Well, the trees were all so excited to have been given such an important task that none of them could even think of sleeping the first night. Over the next few nights, however, one after another started falling asleep, until finally on the seventh day only the firs, balsams, spruces, hollies, junipers, and laurels were still awake and keeping watch. The great Creator Spirit proclaimed, “You have done well! I will give you the gift of being green year round so that in the dead of winter other creatures may find shelter and care among your branches!”
Advent means to remind Christians that we are those people called and chosen by God to be watching and waiting, keeping guard over all creation – for so God did create us, male and female, in God's own image, that we might rule and serve all God’s creatures and all of creation.
We are called to be an Evergreen People – others are meant to take refuge among our branches. We are to watch over and care for those in need. God came to us as Jesus to help us to remember who we are and whose we are – who we were created to be in the first place. We are to be the light shining in the darkest days, ever green in the most barren, cold and difficult times and places. Advent is a time for us to think on these things as we watch and wait for Christ to return to our lives, our hearts and souls. Prepare him a place in your heart and become an evergreen person of God. Amen.
Advent Wreath: Part 2
Although traditional Advent Wreathes have red or purple candles, and sometimes a white “Christ” candle in the center, the Sarum usage at Salisbury Cathedral in England calls for blue candles – symbolizing “hope” and “waiting.” Advent is a time of hope and waiting – hope and waiting for the coming of Christ.
No one knew this better than Mary – a mere teenage child by today’s standards. Traditionally the Third Sunday of Advent shifts our focus to Mary, and often a rose colored candle is used on this Third Sunday. Called Gaudete Sunday – Latin for “Rejoice,” a key word in all of our scripture for today. Though one well might ask just what a young, pregnant teenage girl has to rejoice about!
The clues lie in our scriptures that reveal the history of our people, the people of God. Writes St. Paul to the Church in Thessalonika, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing....for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." For years I have found this to be the most mysterious and probably most important task we are given - to pray without ceasing! Pray always. May all of your life be a prayer. All that we do and all that we say is meant to be a prayer. How does one do this?
Mary knows. When all is said and done, the babe is born, the shepherds have shared the news with anyone who will listen, we are told that Mary ponders these things in her heart. I suspect she began her pondering back with the angel Gabriel announcing that she, a young girl, unmarried at that, would bear a child - and not just any child, but God's child. It is the kind of news that is likely to set you to ponder many things.
I have come to think that this pondering, or prayer without ceasing, finds its origins in something like centering prayer. And that once one has entered the realm of oneness with God and with others, all kinds of prayers begin to manifest themselves. Look at Mary. The Magnificat, The Song of Mary, bursts forth from her pondering heart.
Like Paul, she too speaks of Rejoicing "in God my Savior." All this pondering has helped her to feel blessed. And then she has a vision - the proud shall be scattered, the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up and the rich sent empty away! It is an animating vision. One that were I to hazard a guess still animates people all around the world, from Occupy Wall Street, Main Street, Whatever Street, to the streets of places as far away as Russia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen.
For those of us who do not spend much time pondering, do we even recognize that what Mary sings about, what Mary's poetry proclaims, amidst a climate of military occupations, mortgage foreclosures, monstrous indebtedness and the like - do we even recognize that what she imagines the Lord can do is happening before our very eyes?
Gaudete Sunday is a time to Rejoice with Mary, with the Psalmist in Psalm 126, with Paul, and even with John the Baptizer who is pictured going to great pains to point out that he is not the one they are looking for, but The One is here. The Advent Wreath means to draw our attention to all this on this Third Sunday of Advent as we find ourselves once again sitting and standing before what is perhaps one of the strangest and yet most wonderful images of Christ's real presence - Jesus hanging in the palm trees.
Not so strange, however, in the middle east, in Israel, where date palm trees are the coin of the realm. The date palm is thought to be The Original Tree - the one "in the Garden of Eden." (Or, "Inagodadavida"...for those of a certain age)
When one is in Israel one notices that every olive wood crèche, large or small, has a palm tree in front of the shed. And that might not be something you notice all that much until you learn that 1) all the olive wood crèches are made by Muslim artisans in Bethlehem, and 2) the palm tree plays a key role in the Koran's portrayal of the birth of Jesus.
It may come as a surprise that Mary is venerated as a woman among women in Islam, and that as she is in labor she grabs onto a palm tree. A voice, thought by some to some from the child in her womb, tells her that there is a river flowing beneath the tree, and to shake the palm tree so dates will pour down to nourish and relieve the pains of childbirth. The tree shakes, the dates rain down, a child is born. The same story appears in an apocryphal gospel of Matthew as well!
So whether it is the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, or the tree that mid-wifed the virgin birth, Jesus is surely at home in those trees - perhaps even crucified on a date palm where he hands over his spirit, his breath, his life to any of us who will receive it.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Have a blessed Gaudete Sunday as we watch and wait for our Lord to enter into our lives. Let every heart, prepare him room so we are ready to receive him as he hands his Spirit over to us. Amen.