On this month’s Joyful Journey, Bishop David Alan Bard considers the true focus of Advent. He encourages each person to “let your soul rest in the amazing Love of God.”
BISHOP DAVID ALAN BARD
Michigan Area United Methodist Church
Advent is a unique time in the church calendar, a time when the calendar of the church and the calendar of the society seem uniquely mismatched. When the world is rushing about – lining up for early sales, logging on early for cyber sales – Advent asks for waiting and patience. When the surrounding society has us watching for bargains, counting down the days until we can unwrap what others have bought us, Advent asks us to watch for moments of light, echoes of grace, and then counting the days until God will make all things right in total, when God will fully dwell with humanity, wiping every tear from our eyes, when “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4). We have no idea when that may arrive.
Advent is about waiting, watching, patience, about thin rays of light piercing the growing darkness, about how God in Jesus Christ continues to come into our world. Advent is about this coming of God in the everyday, even as we await a final coming. Advent is about calm and quiet.
As Advent arrives, I am returning from a wonderful and moving trip to Israel/Palestine, the Holy Land. I am deeply grateful for all who shared this pilgrimage with Julie and me. Yet even in the Holy Land there was often rushing through, or better put, an odd combination of waiting and rushing. We stood in line at the Church of the Nativity for about 90 minutes, having to be assertive about our place in line, only to be hurried through the place that marks Jesus’ birth – “only five minutes please!”
At the same time, there were moments where the echoes of the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons resounded deeply, when all was calm, all was bright. I appreciated kneeling in prayer at the Church of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee, and at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Both moments had me thinking that perhaps Protestants had been too hasty in removing kneelers from our churches. Another profound moment for me was praying at the Western Wall. I can still “feel” the touch of the cool, smooth stone on my hands as I touched the wall in prayer.
It is important to also say that it was not only in moments of relative silence and solitude that I experienced God’s grace deeply. A significant part of the experience of grace on the trip was the other people, and grace happened not only in profound conversation, but in laughter. There was grace even as I slipped off a step in the Jordan River during the baptismal remembrance, and got wetter than I had intended. I wonder, though, if we all need some of those moments of quiet grace, those calm moments encouraged by Advent, to fully appreciate the grace that comes in more crowded and chaotic moments. The quiet and calm and patience encouraged in Advent seem to shape a soul that can appreciate the thin rays of light that can arrive in chaos, that can receive more profoundly the gift that is present in every conversation with another that moves beyond a greeting and asking about the weather, that can laugh with genuine joy at the moment of a self-renewal of baptism.
One of the gifts of the Advent and Christmas seasons is the invitation to calm and quiet, to letting the soul rest in the amazing love of God, a love that comes down at Christmas, but comes down always, again and again. It is a love that shines into the darkness that is part of our lives and part of our world. While in Bethlehem, I could not help but hear the words, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee, tonight.” We cannot deny the difficulty in the world, its brutality, its suffering. We cannot deny that we suffer and know disappointment and pain. What we can likewise affirm is that God’s love is a constant, that God continues to work in our world in the direction of beauty, grace, healing, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, peace and love. They are there, but sometimes it requires patience, quiet and calm to see them more clearly. When we, out of a calm and quiet center, know God’s love in beauty, grace, healing, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, peace, we also know that we are invited by God in Jesus Christ to be part of God’s work of nurturing and growing each of these.
You don’t need to travel to the Holy Land to discover calm and quiet, to let your soul rest in the amazing love of God. The invitation to such moments is always there if you listen carefully to the whisper of God’s Spirit. Listen.
My hope and prayer for each of you is that you create space and make time for moments of calm and bright this Advent and Christmas season. Let such moments more deeply center you in the love of God in Jesus Christ, and being more firmly centered, may such moments give you renewed energy to live God’s love more fully.
Thank you, Michigan United Methodists, for being people who, knowing you are loved by God, choose to love. Thank you for being part of God’s work of shining light and love into our world.