“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.5Therefore, keep awake….” – Mark 13:33-35
We have arrived at the season of Advent. Advent means “coming” and in this sense, “The coming of the Christ”. In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest season of the year, just weeks before the Winter Solstice, the year’s darkest day. In ancient times and even now in many cultures, the Winter Solstice is a deeply spiritual occasion. The demons of darkness are expelled and the return of light experienced. It is a time when in the deepest darkness, the Light of Hope returns. As now part of the Christian tradition adapted in the 4th Century, it has become the time of celebrating the coming of Christ into the world, the Light of the World, in a man named Jesus.
Do we feel the darkness around us these days? I’m sure you do. Many of us have a dread for these longer periods of darkness coming upon us. Many will be heading south to warmer and sunnier climes to stay warmer and help keep the spirits buoyant. Many will soon dig out special lights to sit before each day combating the Seasonal Affective Disorder which leaves us feeling depressed and lethargic.
Rev. Dr. Alexander Shaia, a spiritual teacher who led last January’s Clergy/Educator’s retreat at the Clarion Hotel in Dunkirk, said the season of Advent is a time to “embrace the darkness.” He wasn’t just speaking of the physical darkness outside but of the darkness which lingers within.
We do what we can to fight and escape the darkness. We put up sparkling lights and turn on endless music to keep spirits buoyant. Perhaps more parties are attended this next month than in any other season. Lights, music and parties certainly have their place, but to receive most from this season, like Dr. Shaia suggested, we might consciously seek to embrace the darkness around us.
Have you ever been in a place or room of total darkness? It can feel overwhelming. One feels lost or confused about directions. It is frightening. In one sense, this is the kind of world we live within. It is fragile, unpredictable, and filled with death and violence.
In Biblical literature, harsh times of death and terror were described as “The Day of the Lord.” They could occur at any time. One’s nation could be attacked and overtaken by enemies. Disease could spread through a country or countries wiping out large percentages of populations. Drought seasons often turned into mass starvations as even today occur in parts of the Sahara desert.
We have enjoyed a very mild and fairly warm November and yet many wonder if it’s just the beginning of a catastrophic period caused by global warming. We tend to consider people like Al Gore extremist yet many see major changes as a possibility despite the error of global warming. After all, palm trees and beaches once covered the North and South Poles! Yet very little being is done to curb carbon emissions which help create global warming or to prepare us for perhaps the inevitable.
We live each day with a sense that terror could strike our country at any time. Many of us experienced it ten years ago. We have expended trillions of dollars to secure our peace of mind in attacking suspected countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet we still live with that possibility ever in our minds.
The world has always been a place of darkness with pestilence, wars, earthquakes and horrendous storms. In recent days I have been reading David McCullough’s wonderful book, “The Coming Generation: Americans in Paris.” It too illustrates the fragility of the world then as now. One of the memorable parts to me was the time our Minister to France, Elihu Washburne, served in Paris from 1870 to 1871. His diary was an important source for that history in McCullough’s book. Arriving there alone in the autumn of 1870, he experienced one of the most horrible years of his life. He observed the French war with the Prussians and helped negotiate a treaty after the Prussians blockaded Paris for several weeks during one of their coldest winters. Hundreds starved to death. After the Prussian agreement, he then witnessed two “revolutions” to destroy the third Napoleon dictatorship and then another to bring in Communism. And then another to drive out the Communists! The barbaric killing was nearly indescribable. “Man’s inhumanity against man” it could be called. He wrote: “All the fighting in all the revolutions which have ever taken place in Paris has been mere child’s play compared to what has taken place since Sunday and what is going on now”.
Of course, bloody wars and mass killings did not cease in that century as people had hoped! The 20th century then was by far the most bloody one ever known with two world wars and of course, fighting and expenditures for continuing fighting continues on. We could easily now wipe out large percentages of our world’s population with just the weapons our country owns. I need not remind you of more. The likelihood of further “days of the Lord” lingers ever in our consciousness. Oh, the darkness of the world, despite the millions of attempts to bring “social justice.”
Yet beyond all the darkness of countries, ours and other’s, we live with the darkness of our own lives. Disease and death strike ever so suddenly and loved ones are gone. We read and hear personal tragedies constantly in papers and electronic media. “Airplane pilot and three children crash into Arizona Mountain on Thanksgiving Day and all are killed. Mother in deep despair.” Oh the darkness which surrounds and permeates our lives.
If we listen and observe, we hear and feel darkness within our own lives and minds. The darkness of doubts, guilt, of our unworthiness, of family betrayals, children’s mistakes and failures, separation and breaking of families, the fights and screams we rage at each other. Our churches and institutions now seem perilously close to failure; churches are moving away from full time ministers to part time, then closure at alarming rates, as you well know.
What can we do to be ready? What can we do to have our lanterns filled with oil? How can we escape the attacks of terror? I remember leading bicycle trips in past years and how frightened riders became of big, ferocious farm dogs! I tried to teach them how to confront them. One “simply” needs to face them straight on and shout, “Stop! Get out of here!” And most all of them would. But how can this work with the darkness of our age and world?
We stare into our hearts and tell ourselves straight out this world is not our home; we are just passers through! We remind ourselves we are not mortal bodies that can be seen and touched, but we are Spirit, unseen yet One with the Great Unseen Force called God, Jesus, Buddha, Hasham or Ba-ha-lu-a. We declare “No” to the darkness of the ephemeral world! It works as we continue to learn what this means, working at our daily tasks in facing our “demons.”
I’ve been reading of the gifted spiritual teacher called George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a fascinating teacher in the last century from Russia. He began searching for an awakening in his youth and when he found it, set up little groups to meet together regularly to “work on their issues.” He described sitting as one of the “speediest” techniques to experience freedom from death and darkness and bring us to non-violence. He said that when we sit, or at any time we feel pain and fear enter our minds, this intrusion ought to be viewed as another opportunity to strength and refine our lives. He called such moments of darkness an “alchemy” process to refine the “gold of Spirit” within our lives.
And so it is. As long as we exist here on earth our “work” will continue to dispel anger, bitterness, and those past hurts to our lives. Working with others can hasten the process.
I was part of a small group which read and responded to the book A Course in Miracles for several years while pastor. It was one of my most important groups of the week along with a Bible Study group I led on Tuesdays. The Course, channeled and published in the 1970’s, is a book of readings from a Voice many identify as Jesus. It is work to read and understand as it is work to live it each day. Yet, it can become quite liberating along with reading other difficult scriptures such as our Bible.
Within the darkness of these days, we soon will join together at Christmas to celebrate historically a “Christ Mass” or a Christ Presence in our midst. Instead of running or seeking to blur out the darkness around and within, let us face it, embrace it, and in stillness of sitting and supporting one another, feel the Presence, go beyond our outward bodies and world into the realm of Eternity and Freedom. Let us stay awake, be ready, and not be found sleeping when the Day of the Lord arrives.
Talk presented at the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, November 27, 2011 by Rev. David Persons, Weekend Speaker, Worship Leader, and Moderator.