Singing While the Dawn is Still Dark

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My first memory of Advent began at home. My mother placed a wreathe on the dinner table with four candles on the outer perimeter and one big one at the center. The wreathe had the echo of “Christmas,” but the symbolism of the candles together with scripture told a different story.

Advent means “arrival.” I read a more nuanced definition just recently that conveyed the sense of “things coming around” or “things falling into place.”

Theologically, it describes those moments in scripture when God’s people longed for more faithful leadership or the coming of a Messiah. For the followers of Jesus, it was a disciplined awareness of God’s presence on earth.

Walking through darkness

Advent is not for “religious people” per se, nor for the feint of heart. It is for anyone who has ever walked through a time of darkness. Such darkness can be a crisis of faith, a painful regret or a longing for a healthier life or world. Advent names our darkness and presents us with light.

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Four candles exist as an invitation to discipleship, to reflect on those areas in our life and world that need attention. The center candle invites us to consider the kind of humanity in whom God dwells — one who welcomes the stranger, communes with sinners and lifts up a vision of the planet that makes a place for all living creatures.

Sometimes it takes a ritual to remind us who we are. This may be why some of the scriptures in Advent do not take us to “church,” but to the wilderness to set things right. There, people came from all around to listen to a wide-eyed prophet named John the Baptist who seemed to know what he was talking about. If you want to improve your life and world, it starts now. Then, he would immerse them in the waters of the Jordan as a sign of a new beginning.

Symbols invite us to participate in reality itself. -Tillich

Interestingly, the theologian Paul Tillich made a distinction between signs and symbols. Paraphrasing Tillich, David Steward writes, “a sign is that which points beyond itself to something else (Exploring the Philosophy of Religion, 207).” Symbols, on the other hand, not only point to, but invite us to participate in the realities themselves. In the church, baptism is not just a ritual, but an immersion into a way of life. Communion is not just bread and wine or juice, but an invitation to be made whole again.

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We long to be called again. -Ricoeur

Hope, love, peace and joy are not just words, but “garments” to be worn. The One who came to dwell on earth was not a “religion,” but a presence that burns inside the human heart where faith and love are genuine. As I light the first candle of Advent, I am often reminded of a quote by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Commenting on the proverbial wilderness and darkness that all may feel from time to time, Ricoeur writes: “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”

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I have a conviction that most of us long to be called again to meaningful existence as human creatures, as communities and as a nation. We long to work for things that matter, but sometimes we get distracted, lose heart, or no longer believe that meaningful existence is possible.

I was at a spiritual retreat some years ago when the leader asked, “What is one thing you enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it?” I said, “Guitar. I used to play weekly and over time I convinced myself that I had more important things to do.” Later that evening, we were all gathered around a campfire and the leader handed me a guitar and said, “Play.”

I resisted at first, feeling the strings beneath my hand, the smooth neck and body resting on my lap. Then we started with a few simple songs and eventually joined one another in singing into the night sky. It was a form a communion, helping us to recall what joyful and meaningful existence is. It’s true, we still had jobs to do, lives to live and people to take care of, but in that moment, we were much more in tune to the spirit in which we do those things.

Faith is the bird that feels the light while dawn is still dark. -Tagore

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The season surrounding Advent is a hard time for some, especially for those who endure loss of every shape and form. By lighting the first candle, we pause in the awareness that we are not alone. We pause in recognition that there is something that makes the sun rise, that there are resources to help us, and that we may be a resource for the healing and wellbeing of another.

It is easy to lose sight of such possibilities where there is negativity and hardship in the world, but in the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Faith is the bird that feels the light while the dawn is still dark.

Faith emerges in our disciplined awareness that we have a song to sing amidst the darkness with the coming light of each new day.

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Though I have observed Advent in different ways over the years, this year I plan to read a Psalm and gospel reading on the four Sundays of Advent prior to Christmas. I invite you to read along and add your own readings from scripture and/or other sources.

You may choose art or music as focal points. You may be one to journal or meditate. You may be one who prays or contemplates. Whatever we may be so inclined to do, it is the hope that these exercises will help to deepen our relationship with God and our love for neighbors near and far.

As you read and contemplate other symbolic elements of the season, feel free to write a brief reflection, goal or resolution as a sign of new beginning.

Psalm 40:1–3, Mark 13:32–37
Psalm 42:1–4, Mark 1:1–8
Psalm 130:1–6, Luke 1:46–55
Psalm 89:1–4, Luke 1:26–38

Christmas Eve: Luke 2:8–14

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Hospice Chaplain/Bereavement Coordinator. Kerrville, Texas. Doctoral Degree. Masters of Divinity. BA in English Literature. Running. Guitar. Reflection.

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Rob Lohmeyer

Hospice Chaplain/Bereavement Coordinator. Kerrville, Texas. Doctoral Degree. Masters of Divinity. BA in English Literature. Running. Guitar. Reflection.