Expectation, Prophesy, Waiting, Hope

Patty Wudel

Text: Mark 13:24-37

Good Morning, friends. 

Thank you for reading the scripture, Fred.  Thank you, David Dorsey, for inviting me to share my reflections with Eighth Day this morning; my reflections on the first candle of Advent.  Some faith communities think of this first candle as the candle of Expectation, or Waiting, or Prophesy.  In our community we call it the candle of Hope.

A few days ago at Joseph's House I was talking with a chaplain who was waiting to see one of our residents.  I confessed to her how out of sorts I feel this year, planning for Christmas.  Even the everyday, ordinary things feel really hard:

  • Organizing gifts so that everyone gets something they really need or will really like.  On a deadline!   Not leaving anybody out
  • Figuring out with staff and full time volunteers, the holiday staffing schedule when everybody wants to be with their own families
  • Supporting the many Christmas chefs in a crowded kitchen, to prepare dinner for 50 or more people – residents, former residents, families and friends and
  • trying to manage my own expectations and energy and living with the inevitable loneliness that seeps in. 

"Maybe it's Grief that you're feeling", she said quietly.  What a relief it was to hear it named!   And so kindly.

Yes.  It's Grief.

Maybe it's Grief I feel every year at this time in the weeks leading up to winter solstice when the days are so short and my soul longs for more sunlight.  I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I grieve how American culture "celebrates" Christmas even before Halloween with all the holly jollying and false cheer. 

My late husband, Pierre and I didn't exchange gifts at Christmas.  In the last years of his life Pierre was nearly always in pain.  He and I almost never did anything together outside of Joseph's House.  But every year we drove to a particular Christmas tree lot to get a very tall, natural Christmas tree for Joseph's House.  It was something we did together, and I enjoyed how much it pleased him. 

So, this year, I don't want to go by myself to get the tree.  I don't want to go with anyone else, either.  And I'm not ready to delegate getting a tree to someone else. … I feel really sad just thinking about it.  So many people, so many people at Joseph's House find ourselves really sad in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The soul longs for something real and lovely and of comfort; and what the soul longs for can be so elusive.  We grieve.

At Joseph's House we are accompanying a very young African-American woman who is dying of AIDS.  She is dying of poverty and racism and the vicious stigma she experienced, having HIV.  We're accompanying her family too, her little boys and their father and other family members who can't believe Renee is dying.  She is very angry.  She blames herself.  She is afraid.  We are helpless to help her heal.  Our hearts are breaking. 

And we're doing our best to steady those at Joseph's House whose health is gradually being restored… but they can't wait to get through the holidays because it's so painful when a person has no happy memories at all of other Christmases.  The temptation to dull that pain with drugs and alcohol can be so huge that a person uses and loses ground and has to choose to begin again and that is very, very hard to do.  For everyone.  It's heart-breaking. 

Some of those who loved us, who we still love, have died or are locked up.  They're not here.  We don't speak of it of it much, but in addition to waiting and hoping, Grief is one of the paths in the territory of Christmas.

On this path of stubborn Grief, Hope is stubborn too.  It shows up when I'm not looking for it: Hope is in in the comfort and joy of hearing the voices of people I love downstairs in the living room shouting to the television at their DC and Dallas teams; it's in the way a certain child who comes to visit hugs me and doesn't let go quickly.  It's in an everyday relationship with a man who gives back to Joseph's House – every day – a man who has become my brother.  I look up to him.  Hope is in how a really real, vulnerable, intimate conversation on race can happen - and the sacred ground that holds us both grows a little larger and becomes ground for trusting more and taking more risks.  There is so much suffering.  And I forget to open myself to Hope.  When I forget, Hope seems like a luxury; insubstantial.  But it isn't.  Hope is what artist Jan Richardson calls "elemental".  It endures - and I can feel it, believe in it, when I open to it. 

She reminds us that Hope doesn't depend on our mood, on our disposition (me having a short fuse), our desire.  It doesn't wait until we are ready for it.  It doesn't hold itself apart from us until we've worked through the worst of our sorrow, our anger, our fear.  Hope seeks us out and stands with us in the midst of what weighs us down. 

Hope has work for us to do.  It asks us to resist going numb when the world within us and beyond us is suffering and falling apart.  In the height of despair and loneliness and helplessness, Hope calls us to open our hearts, our eyes, our hands, so that we can engage the person, the situation, the world when they break our hearts. 

I follow Jan Richardson's Advent blog.  She is an artist and ordained minister.  Her husband died unexpectedly while in surgery several years ago, on the second day of Advent.  Last year she wrote: "I cannot shake the sense that there is a vigil being kept for me: that I am being waited for, that I am being watched over, that there is one who lingers at the edge of my awareness, breathing with me and blessing me as I move through these days." 

Advent asks us to keep vigil for the Christ who comes to us new in this season.  And Advent invites us to keep our face turned toward the horizon in hope.  But Advent also asks us to open our hearts to the Christ who keeps vigil for us, who is already with us, waiting for us to open our eyes, our whole selves, to his presence that stays with us always. 

(May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Romans 15:8)

Jan Richardson's Blessing of Hope is an Advent blessing with which I would like to bless you:

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day –

here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us.

Hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,

hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone.

Hope that has breath
and a beating heart,

hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite.

Hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,

hope that raises us
from the dead –

not someday,
but this day,
every day,
again and again and again.   

                                            ~ Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow

Amen.