The Advent Journey
Advent has always felt like a 'summing up' time for me. For many years I wrote an Advent letter to a friend who was a pastor of a small church who would use my letter as a Christmas Eve sermon. As she is no longer serving a congregation, I will post this year's Advent Missive here.
--- There is No Map to Bethlehem ---
If I were to imagine this year as a long walk to Bethlehem, I would have to say that it has been full of twists and turns that I had not imagined. I began this year three weeks after the death of my father. He was my last living relative. I have even researched our family name, and I appear to be the last person in the world carrying it (as my middle name, followed by my ex-husband's name). I have become the last leaf in the entire world on my family's once verdant bough.
It is odd. It is a bit like waking up in an empty house that used to be furnished. It is certainly fraught with moments when I try to make sense of the impossible. I suspect I will be trying to make sense of this for a long time.
Once, walking with me on this life journey to Bethlehem were scores of aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and in-laws. The annual symbolic journey was full of laughter and quibbles, outright arguments, times of deep joy, partings of the way, tearful reunions and pledges of love. Some family members were lovely folk, pleasures to know and meet -- some were difficult people, full of scorn and derision. It was a motley tribe. But it was my tribe.
My friends are the remainder of the tribe. So there we are, there on the horizon, all hunkered down in the night wind, a group getting smaller and smaller. There we are, near Bethlehem this year with all the other nomads, seeking what will pass as a home, a place to belong -- if only for a while.
I have spent time this year looking for a house to buy in my little old home town in Massachusetts. I will be going into business with a childhood friend. And I am doing what anyone lost in a desert does if they can -- I am trying to find home.
Home without family is a radical redefinition of tribe. One of the first things I felt when my final relative died was homeless.
I then picked up the paper and read about global homelessness, and saw articles about Darfur. I read about how Katerina survivors still are largely homeless. That is real homelessness. Not my trivial navel-gazing. In America and western Europe we can insulate ourselves from the reality of an agonized world.
So here we all are in this Advent, looking back through time as the shepherds get the news that there is great joy awaiting them beneath the star, if only they will walk to it. The mists of time and memory swirl as we look at them herding their sheep together, deciding who will stay and who will go onward -- being a tribe and shouldering all the responsibilities that tribes do.
And in Darfur, babies are dying while you read this, their precious lives going out like stars suddenly vanishing from the sky. And in Bethlehem there is the sound of gunfire. And Baghdad is awash in blood. In New Orleans the wreckage still stands, and families still are lost, becoming nomads because no one sees them as part of their tribe. One third of Africa is HIV positive. Millions of women a year are still victims of genital mutilation.
Would those angels dare crease the skies with song today? Would they dare speak of tidings of great joy? Would they have the sheer audacity to call anyone forward to a journey?
I think they are calling.
I think they call from the faces of dying babies and starving people. They call from the faces of the imprisoned and persecuted. They call us this year from the face of the elderly woman who is alone, and frightened and hungry. They call us from the war torn sands, the dying rain forest, the disenfranchised and marginalized, the diminished glaciers.
They call us away from our trivial worry, into the huge gaping vortex of global need and suffering. They call us to find our way to the manger, to the Holy Family, to the center of our Holy Tribe so that we may understand what it is that we must do - so that we see in the depths of the Infant's eyes, the suffering of the world that we are called to comfort. It is there that we are given the gift of being able to see beyond ourselves into the needs of others.
It is there, beneath the rough hewn beams, on a chilly night in the middle of a desert, that the Star of Bethlehem burns bright, burns in the hope that we will find our way to the Holy Family, OUR family, the family that transcends blood family and is the Sacred Tribe to which we all belong. It is there we will find the call to go out, and the hope that we can matter, that we can make a difference.
My wish for us all this year is an expanded idea of our tribes, a broader view of whom it is for which we are responsible in this world. Let the divisive parts of the borders of family and nation, religion and politics collapse.
We know, as we look into the eyes of the Holy Infant that we are called to this place of Infinite Loving and Compassion. We are called out from what troubles us in life into the command to love. Look up from His eyes and look around you. There we all are. I am standing next to you. The world stands there, not as strangers, not all as believers, but all as family. What someone feels about the Christ child is not what makes them family. That God loves us all is what makes us family. There is, after all, nothing in this world as strong as love. Not even death.
Let us be bold in our loving, hopeful, steadfast and triumphant. Let us sing with the angels into the darkest corners of the globe that we bring tidings of joy, and hope and peace. That we will not tolerate war, persecution, hunger and poverty and disease,and that the final word, the only word, is His word to us --- "Love".