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"Poems, Prayers, and Piano for the Cuspis of Advent" A Sermon in Word and Music
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 4th, 2016

No audio is available for this sermon, but you can read the full text, below.



READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our reading today is
SERMON
Introduction: This Is Advent
In this season, in olden times, when the 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
close to heart.

In this season, in days of yore, when wind whipped through the canyons of city streets,
collars were turned up against the cold,
as were the wicks of lanterns against the early evening darkness.

Throughout time, this darkening season,
somewhere between late autumn and early winter,
has promoted a cuspis, a time in between, for solitude,
for turning thoughts inward, for remembering.
It has provided an opening for the discovery
of the wear and tear from yet another year of aging;
or the uncovering of losses and the reconnection of strengths.
It is a time for gleaning perspective, as the season just past settles into a gathering,
as in the Spoon River Anthology,
among its kin of yesteryear.

In this momentary cleavage between the chapters of our lives,
in some parts of the world, this season is known as Advent,
a time of marking time, of putting things away, and 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.
And while we have faith that it surely will come again,
this is a time for the dying of what has been and is no more.

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 of darkness.

The poet writes:
Fiery autumn fades to brown.
The final leaves so slowly
find their way to the ground.
Soft white cloud over head,
So soon comes sunset of red.
The seasons whirl, their cycles spun,
Just as birth - so death does come. (C. B. Ortman)
Piano: Jazz Improvisations

Part I: When Leaves Abandon their Branches
Poet David Budbill writes of gardens and grounds of the soul.
He writes of putting the season of the sun to bed for the year.
He writes, A Long and Gracious Fall.
A long and gracious fall this year.
The leaves are down. Gardens: emptied,
manured, tilled smooth, and waiting.
Mower and tiller serviced and put away.

Smoker put away, as is the summer table.
Prayer flags, windsocks and their poles: down.
Twenty-foot homemade badminton poles,
peace flag at the top of one, store-bought net--
all down and put away for another year. No more
outdoor summer chores.

Fall planting -- peonies and tiger lilies -- done.
Summer flower stalks removed, beds mulched,
a blanket for the cold. Fall pruning done.

Woodshed roof hammered down and sealed again.
Cellar closed. Drive staked and flagged so the
snowplow knows where to go.

What else is there to do? Finally, for once, we are ready
for the snow. Ready now to come inside. Time now for
words and music, poems and shakuhachi. Time now
to light some incense, sit and stare at candlelight.
And then Budbill adds, in yet another poem, that there is still a remainder�
One that indeed lingers for those who linger in and with it�
The Fall Almost Nobody Sees:
Everybody's gone away.
They think there's nothing left to see.

The garish colors' flashy show is over.
Now those of us who stay
hunker down in sweet silence,
blessed emptiness among

red-orange shadblow
purple-red blueberry
copper-brown beech
gold tamarack, a few
remaining pale yellow
popple leaves,

sedge and fern in shades
from beige to darkening red
to brown to almost black,
and all this in front of, below,
among blue-green spruce and fir
and white pine,

all of it under gray skies,
chill air, all of us waiting
in the somber dank and rain,
waiting here in quiet, chill
November,
waiting for the snow.
Perhaps one of, if not the, greatest ambivalences of a lifetime can be found in our eager approach and reluctant avoidance to the final act of living, the final curtain, which awaits us all. Autumnal, by Stanley Plumly:
Not long before she died my mother told me
that her one regret was never to have traveled
and that since she had just read about it
or somewhere that reminded her from sometime
Venice was the place she would have gone to
and might still in her haunting of the afterlife.
She had already questioned God in heaven
and the heavy Bible verses she was taught
and now saw death as her last chance to live,
her last chance to spend the green-gold leaf
pressed into books each October on her birthday.
She wept, she understood the innocence of dying.
And here she was propped up against her pillow
the way she finally would be in her coffin
with her eyeglasses held between the light
and open page. She wanted me to hear the article
that said that Venice would be filled like all
Italy that season and that Venice in particular
was vulnerable and small, weighted with the souls
of travelers, and that in the Grand Canal
rivers of dark waters moved.--Would
there be space?--It said, salotto citta,
that Venice was a city the size of drawing rooms,
lit with the flowers of funerals and weddings.
Robert Frost, letting loose of one aspect of ambivalence, discovers that unto the end, always there may still be another waiting: To Prayer I Think I Go...
To prayer I think I go,
I go to prayer--
Along a darkened corridor of woe
And down a stair
In every step of which I am abased.
I wear a halter-rope about the waist.
I bear a candle end put out with haste.
For such as I there is reserved a crypt
That from its stony arches having dripped
Has stony pavement in a slime of mould.
There I will throw me down an unconsoled
And utter loss,
And spread out in the figure of a cross.--
Oh, if religion's not to be my fate
I must be spoken to and told
Before too late!
Piano: Jazz Improvisations

Part II: Vision Held Open in the Dark
Vertical, by Linda Pastan:
Perhaps the purpose
of leaves is to conceal
the verticality
of trees
which we notice
in December
as if for the first time:
row after row
of dark forms
yearning upwards.
And since we will be
horizontal ourselves
for so long,
let us now honor
the gods
of the vertical:
stalks of wheat
which to the ant
must seem as high
as these trees do to us,
silos and
telephone poles,
stalagmites
and skyscrapers.
But most of all
these winter oaks,
these soft-fleshed poplars,
this birch
whose bark is like
roughened skin
against which I lean
my chilled head,
not ready
to lie down.
Michael Blumenthal writes of Sadness, a late-season lament over inevitability, fringed still by implacable hope:
Sooner or later it comes to everyone:
the beautiful prom queen who has lost a breast,
the Don Juan of the tenth grade who has
turned up impotent, the fleet chiropodist
who has developed a limp. Sooner or later it comes,
and you are never prepared for it quite yet,
you who had hoped to be spared through another epoch
of your rightful happiness, you who had always
given to charity. Like a gargantuan tackle
lumbering toward you, it comes and comes,
and--though you may double lateral all you wish,
though you may throw a perfect spiral
up the middle to some ecstatic receiver
and be blessed blue-green some night
by the ministrations of strangers--it will not
spare you. It comes and comes, inevitable
as sunrise, palpable as longing,
and we must go on
laughing it right in the face
until it learns to sing again.
John Donne wrote, In Heaven it Is Always Autumn:
Though in the ways of fortune or understanding or conscience
Thou have been benighted til now,
Wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed
Damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied til now:
Now God comes to thee,
Not as in the dawning of the day,
Not as in the bud of the spring
But as the sun at noon,
As the sheaves in harvest.
Elizabeth Spires begins her poem of the same title by quoting Donne. She goes on:
In heaven it is always autumn. The leaves are always near
to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven's paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven's calm, they take each other's arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that's said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
shining brightly
as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we're here, I think it must
be heaven.
Poet, novelist, cultural observer and contemporary theologian Wendell Berry writes in a poem he simply calls, X:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
Being in the dark is a giving-in to mystery.
It is a giving-in to death; at least a little.
It's not so much acquiescence as it is surrender.
It's letting go of what we knew and embracing,
for all we are worth, the mystery that lies below
that which we know.
Whether it is now or later, true death awaits us all.
Whether we engage in it now or never,
the mystery that holds and sustains us now
will come to claim us back into the cleavage of her bosom.

William Shakespeare wrote, "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, and the courage; give me the grace to be such a lover of life, even in the face of letting go.

Piano: Jazz Improvisations

Part III: Onward We Go, Faithfully, into the Dark
"This is what I believe," wrote D. H. Lawrence:
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 never let mankind put anything over me,
but 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.
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 darkness,
if we would be honest there,
we would come face-to-faced with nothingness.
Experiences of nothingness, one must glean,
are never superficial; they are about the very essence of our being.
They are our surest encounters with the great mystery.

Bill Holm writes of the challenge and the opportunity of the genius found in mystery in his poem What Beethoven's Music Will Do to You:
Listen long enough,
you'll go stone deaf,
your body grow squat
from eating only
fish and brown sausages
washed down with hock.
Christen your sister-in-law
Queen of the Night, then
take her to court. Break
all the piano's strings,
howl and mutter and brood.
It'll do you no good.
He already wrote this music,
made it into the mirror
that always shows you
the back side of yourself
that you only imagined before.
Now you'll want to write
King Lear, paint The Last Supper,
rebuild the Parthenon.
That's how it always goes--
nose to nose with magnitude.
The seasons slip across the invisible delineation,
amid the former and the latter.
The moment might remain quite imperceptible,
at least until the world announces its passing with heraldry.

C. K. Williams wrote One Morning in Brooklyn:
The snow is falling in three directions at once against the sienna brick of the houses across,
but the storm is mild, the light even, the erratic wind not harsh, and, tolling ten o'clock,
the usually undistinguished bells of the Sixth Street cathedral assume an authoritative dignity,
remarking with ponderous self-consciousness the holy singularities of this now uncommon day.
How much the pleasant sense, in our sheltering rooms, of warmth, enclosure: an idle, languid taking in,
with almost Georgian ease, voluptuous, reposeful, including titillations of the sin of well-being,
the gentle adolescent tempest, which still can't make up its mind quite, can't dig in and bite,
everything for show, flailing with a furious but futile animation wisps of white across the white.
Have you ever, I wonder, lain beneath the snow?
Dug a tunnel and let it cave in on you?
Burrowed deep into a bank until
you've allowed yourself to become a part of that bank?
The experience is something of a preparatory one,
like children playing house, pretending to be the adults
they might one day become.
In the snow though, we are brought to a sobering awareness of what is to be.
Kirsten Dierking shares such an experience in Shoveling Snow.
If day after day I was caught inside
this muffle and hush

I would notice how birches
move with a lovely hum of spirits,

how falling snow is a privacy
warm as the space for sleeping,

how radiant snow is a dream
like leaving behind the body

and rising into that luminous place
where sometimes you meet

the people you've lost. How
silver branches scrawl their names

in tangled script against the white.
How the curves and cheekbones

of all my loved ones appear
in the polished marble of drifts.
Mary Jo Salter steps into the dreamlike quality of this final evolution into the dissolution of what has been. Waking reality intertwined with dreams, intertwined with memories and tradition, leads us to where we must go as she reminds us that our theme here is Advent.
Wind whistling, as it does
in winter, and I think
nothing of it until

it snaps a shutter off
her bedroom window, spins
it over the roof and down

to crash on the deck in back,
like something out of Oz.
We look up, stunnedthen glad

to be safe and have a story,
characters in a fable
we only half-believe.

Look, in my surprise
I somehow split a wall,
the last one in the house

we're making of gingerbread.
We'll have to improvise:
prop the two halves forward

like an open double door
and with a tube of icing
cement them to the floor.

Five days until Christmas,
and the house cannot be closed.
When she peers into the cold

interior we've exposed,
she half-expects to find
three magi in the manger,

a mother and her child.
She half-expects to read
on tablets of gingerbread

a line or two of Scripture,
as she has every morning
inside a dated shutter

on her Advent calendar.
She takes it from the mantel
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap

under which a thumbnail picture
by Raphael or Giorgione,
Hans Memling, of David

of apses, niches, archways,
cradles a smaller scene
of a mother and her child,

of the lidded jewel-box
of Mary's downcast eyes.
Flee into Egypt, cries

the angel of the Lord
to Joseph in a dream,
for Herod will seek the young
child to destroy him. While
she works to tile the roof
with shingled peppermints,

I wash my sugared hands
and step out to the deck
to lug the shutter in,

a page torn from a book
still blank for the two of us,
a mother and her child.
And onward still we go in the poem December, by Gary Johnson:
A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled.
Not much triumph going on here-and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.
Throughout time, this darkening season,
somewhere between late autumn and early winter,
has promoted a cuspis, a time in between,
for solitude, for turning thoughts inward,
for remembering.

In this momentary cleavage between the chapters of our years,
and of our lives, and of our seasons
in some parts of the world, this season is known as Advent,
a time of marking time, of putting things away, and waiting;
a time of emptying out, of expectancy and of hope.
To everything there is a season, and this one holds in it both
a time to seek and a time to lose.
It holds both a time to let go
and a time to embrace, to embrace
the unknown that lies beneath our holding and our knowing.
It holds a time of mystery and of promise.
In all ways it holds a time of promise�

Come, O come, Emmanuel. This is our time for making ready.
Be with us as we seek to find our way
through the shortening days and the longest night.
Come, O come, Emmanuel, and into this darkness:
This darkness, give us sight. Piano: Jazz Improvisations