Advent: Unafraid of the Dark
A Sermon of Music and Verse by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence,
RI, on December 13, 2015
Accompaniment, Goldberg Variations
- (J. S. Bach), by Mr. Frederick Jodry
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
No readings this week
SERMON OF MUSIC & VERSE
(Note to reader: This sermon exists within a musical conversation of metrically spoken verse and instrumentation. You may wish to listen to a previous presentation of the same sermon, from UU Church of Montclair, found at the item's page on their Internet Archive directory, or skip to the end of this page for an embedded player to listen here).
Part I: An Introduction to the Season;
One late autumn day a few years back, I was in Chicago
For a weekend holiday visit. On Saturday
I packed my late father-in-law's ashes into my knapsack
and carried them, on a hike,
along with other family members,
into a nearby forest reserve.
The date had been earlier set because
we would all be together then.
We walked along the trail, into the woods,
now turned to mudded fields of leafless trees.
We found a pleasant spot there
where a meandering stream formed a deep bend
affording us a landing from which
we could launch the ashes into water,
water that then carried the ashes,
with our tears,
It was left to me,
the minister among us, to say something.
I thought of words I‘d written
some several decades earlier
when a dear friend had died.
They are words I often recite, even here
when we plant the ashes of loved ones,
in our Memorial Garden, just out in front.
The words remind me of the truth
of our human, earth-bound experience:
"Fiery autumn fades to brown.
The final leaves so slowly find their way to the ground.
Soft white cloud overhead,
So soon comes sunset of red.
Seasons whirl, their cycles spun.
Just as birth so death does come."
-- "Fiery Autumn Fades to Brown" (CBO 1978)
In olden days, no matter our heritage, our ancestors were a rural people.
The whole world operated from a rhythm that stemmed
from the cycles of an agrarian calendar.
Seasons of festival or fasting were tied to seasons of human husbandry
to the earth and all its creatures.
Liturgical calendars - ecclesiastical schedules of spiritual life - developed
keeping religion apace with the more natural rhythms of bodies: men and women; earth, moon, sun.
In this season, in olden times,
when so many animal populations either died off
or fell into deep, long sleep,
when the harvest was brought home and stored
for the harsher days ahead,
when the darkness of night stretched its shadowy borders
overwhelming the edges of the day,
when the rhythms of plant life slowed,
the rhythms of the people lingered too,
in a kind of syncopated harmony.
In this season, in olden times,
when leaves had abandoned their branches,
when woodland streams turned cold and gray,
when fields lay bare and barren winds blew over them,
this season provided a spell for holding darkness, and even death,
close to the heart.
In olden times, this darkening season
was a time for solitude,
for turning thoughts inward,
It was a time for discovering the wear and tear
from yet another year of aging;
a time for uncovering losses and reconnecting strengths.
It was a time for gleaning perspective,
as the season just past settled
into a Spoon River-like gathering among its kin of yesteryear.
In olden times, in some parts of the world,
this season was known as Advent,
a time of marking time,
of putting things away, of waiting;
a time of emptying out, of expectancy.
To everything there is a season,
and this one holds in it both a time to seek and a time to lose.
The time to be born though, has past for now.
And though it may come again, this is a time for dying.
This is Advent on the Christian calendar.
It is a time of longing, of expectation, of waiting.
It is a time of night; a time for darkness.
Part II: Toward the Mystery in the Dark;
Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote:
This word is a hidden word
and comes in the darkness of the night.
To enter this darkness, put away
all voices and sounds
all images and likenesses.
For no image has ever reached into the soul's foundation
Where God herself
with her own being is effective.
I was talking the other day with a friend who is also colleague of mine. He told me about an experience he had that lasted for several years and ended just this past spring. It seems that about five years ago he began to find quarters lying around his house. Actually, he never found more than one quarter at any particular time.
But, just the same, from time to time he would find one. Sometimes on the carpet, sometimes on a table, or a shelf, or somewhere else, always unexpected. The interesting thing was that no one in his household was ever missing any quarters. There was no explanation, really, for where they were coming from.
Not too long after the quarters began to appear, my friend was talking one evening with another acquaintance over dinner. My friend mentioned the odd occurrence of the appearance of these quarters. And his dinner companion asked,
"Tell me, did someone die recently?"
"Yes," my friend answered. "My mother died just a month ago."
"Well," said his companion, "Oddly enough, I've heard of this sort of thing before. Seems it's not an uncommon experience. I've heard of others who have lost loved ones, and then shortly after began to find coins in random places around their homes. There's no logical explanation, but I suspect that the deceased loved one is somehow trying to communicate, leaving mementos as a kind of message to the bereaved. Maybe that's what your mother, your late mother, is trying to do." And the quarters continued to appear.
My friend, who is a rabbi, related this experience in a telephone conversation with his older brother, who is also a rabbi, out on the West Coast.
"Well," said his brother, "All she's leaving me are nickels!" And then he laughed, as many of us would laugh.
"I'll believe that something like this could happen," his brother said, "whenever someone comes back from the dead to show me where they've hid the money."
And still from time to time, the quarters continued to appear in my friend's home.
And from time to time the brothers would talk on the phone. My friend would mention the quarters and his brother would laugh and respond that still he was only getting nickels, although in truth he wasn't even getting any nickels. He wasn't finding any coins at all. This went on for some five years, and then just this past spring, my friend invited his brother to come and visit, and to preach to his congregation for the holiday of Shavuot.
A couple of days before the older brother arrived, my friend found a couple of dimes on the floor of his study. He didn't think much about them. He picked them up and put them on the edge of a coffee table in the living room. He just left them there. Over the next several days, as he walked past the table, occasionally he would glance at them, noticing the dimes lying there near the corner of the edge of the coffee table.
On Shabbos morning, Saturday, the day before his brother was to fly back to California, the two rabbis were getting ready to go to services at the synagogue. They stood in the living room talking for a moment before heading out the door. As they did, my friend happened to glance down at the coffee table expecting to see the two dimes that had
seemed to have become ensconced there.
The dimes were gone. In their place were two other coins, a quarter and a nickel. Again, no apparent explanation.
It also happened to be the fifth anniversary of their mother's death. The brothers stood there, embracing one another in the living room for several minutes, quite unable to speak. They did however, share the inescapable feeling that their mother had somehow brought them together. "The hair on the backs of our arms stood straight on end, as we stood there in silence," my friend told me.
True story. Make of it what you will.
But as I heard author Barbara Kingsolver
mention once in an interview,
"A mystery that can be understood... is not a mystery."
There is mystery in life. There is mystery in death.
Mystery seems to be at home in the darkness,
darkness of the night, or in the darkness of our under-conscious.
There are many gifts, I suspect,
waiting to present themselves to us
from within the space of dark mystery.
This is a season for the exploration of that dark space,
of the mystery, perhaps to find
the gifts that have been left for us there.
Retired Unitarian Universalist minister David O. Rankin wrote a meditation, “Singing in the Night:”
I love to pray, to go deep down into the silence:
To strip myself of all pride, selfishness, and coldness of heart;
To peel off thought after thought,
passion after passion,
till I reach the genuine depths of all;
To remember how short a time ago I was nothing,
and in how short a time again
I will not be here;
To dwell on all joys, all ecstasies,
all tender relations
that give my life zest and meaning;
To peek through a mystic window
and look upon the fabric of life
-- how still it breathes,
how solemn its march,
how profound its perspective;
And to think how little I know,
how very little,
except the calm, the silence,
and the singing, singing in the night.
Prayer is the soul's intimacy with God,
the ultimate kiss.
Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote, "The Dream Keeper:"
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
The growing darkness of this season
invites us in to meet ourselves here
within the mystery of this world,
within the mystery of the universe itself.
Part III: Does Darkness Mean This Is the End?
from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills:"
Senseless is the breast and cold
Which relenting love would fold;
Bloodless are the veins and chill
Which the pulse of pain did fill;
Every little living nerve
That from bitter words did swerve
Round the tortur'd lips and brow,
Are like sapless leaflets now
Frozen upon December's bough.
Being in the dark is a giving in to death
- at least a little.
It's not so much consent
as it is a laying down of one's resistance.
It's letting go of what we know
and embracing, for all we are worth,
the mystery that lies below that which we can comprehend.
Whether it is coming now or later,
physical death awaits us all.
Whether we engage in it now or never,
the mystery that holds and sustains us presently,
will come to claim us back into her breast.
If I must die I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in my arms."
God, I pray, please give me the strength,
the courage, the grace
to be such a lover of life,
even in the face of letting it go.
Feminist theologian Susan Griffin wrote,
Nothingness spreads around us.
But in this nothing we find
what we did not know existed.
When we let go, when we go into the dark,
if we would be honest there,
we would come face-to-face with nothingness.
Experiences of nothingness, I have to believe,
are never superficial;
they are about the very essence of our being.
They are our encounters with the great mystery.
D. H. Lawrence wrote:
This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be
more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of
my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go ... that I will try always to
recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. There is my creed.
It's sometimes said that "We are all amateurs at facing death." In so many ways I suspect that, no matter how long
we live, it's also true that we are amateurs at facing life. In death we let go of life. In the darkness though, we
embrace it. "The paradox is," Albert Nolan suggests, "... that a [person] who fears death is already dead, whereas the
[person] who has ceased to fear death has at that moment begun to live."
Poet/songwriter Laura Nyro wrote:
I'm not scared of dying and I don't really care.
If it's peace you find in dying, well, then let the [dying] time be near.
The anticipatory dying that is available to us
through the growing darkness of this season,
the anticipatory dying made available to us
sometimes in literature and song,
is about dying.
But it's about much more than that.
It's about our relationship with dying.
And so, really, it's more about our living,
and our relationship to life.
It's about how we live; why we live;
to what end we live.
Part IV: Shadows in the Dark;
Again Langston Hughes, from his poem "Suburban Evening:"
A dog howled.
Weird became the night.
No good reason
For my fright --
But reason often
May play host
If the thought of our dying invites us into relationship
with the prospect of living,
wherein comes our fear of that prospect?
Many of us have been taught
and so we teach our children in turn
to fear the darkness.
Strange how it is offered,
in the negative.
"Don't be afraid of the dark,"
they said... and now we say.
And the unspoken message is
"There is something to be afraid of there,
...but don't be."
And then, of course,
I have sometimes spoken
on the topic of evil.
Still, there is much about it to be said.
There always will be.
A disservice though, I think
I sometimes commit
against the subject
is to lay it out as a dichotomy
... a false dichotomy, between it,
between evil and good.
The opposite of good is never evil,
Elie Wiesel tells us.
It is indifference.
Evil and good are parts
of one same thing -
Our human behavior.
Our behavior is about approaches we make,
responses we form
to the truth,
that we are here but for a while.
We are born through pain
from not having known ourselves,
to knowing at least something of ourselves,
eventually then to dying dying,
often likely through pain again
we go back into not knowing.
It's not that we did not know
nor that we shall not.
It is just that we do not.
We do not know, cannot know
whence or wither;
but only this,
only this brief moment...
only this human lifetime... can we know.
And in our efforts to make sense
of what this is
we choose either
to lift ourselves, all together,
or perhaps we choose
to lift our self, alone,
higher than the other.
We call one good, and the other evil.
Sometimes we do the one.
Sometimes the other.
The first keeps us in good company,
connected, embracing, a grasp to secure.
The latter puts us against the rest,
isolated, insulated, invested in armature.
Right or wrong, how can we know?
Perhaps we cannot, but even so,
that will not let us off the hook
from asking the questions
that must be asked,
or from living out our answers
that we discover to those questions.
And where is it that we might find,
a space to do our asking?
Could it be in that frightening place?
In the darkness, or the clearing within it,
where our gods and our devils
come and go?
Could it be in the nighttime
that this season makes so abundant,
that this season makes so inviting?
Would we dare to answer
this invitation we've been issued?
Be it by God, or by nature?
And so dear friends,
if you have come for answers this morning,
I must apologize.
For I serve up only questions
that we each must realize.
So let our hearts sing out their song
of life in deepest yearning.
That we might hear our inmost quest
and in it hear our calling.
If there are ears besides our own
that might hear our spirits pleading,
let us give them thanks
for their comradeship,
their company in keeping.
But let this task be ours to take,
to live this life we're living.
And let this cup be ours to drink
in pain, in joy, in thanksgiving.
Come, O, come, Emmanuel.
Give comfort to all exiles here,
and to the aching heart bid cheer.
Come, O, come, Emmanuel.
And dawn in every broken soul
as vision that can see the whole.
Come, O, come, Emmanuel.
This is our time for making ready.
Be with us as we seek to find our way
through day and through night.
Come, O, come, Emmanuel,
and into the darkness give us sight.