Advent Blue

For my personal Advent devotions this year, I’ve been reading the book Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations by David Bannon. Each day of Advent is devoted to a visual artist, usually a painter. Two or three of the artist’s works are shared in full color, and an accompaning essay (or meditation) tells the story of the artist. Finally, a few quotes that connect to the story or the artist somehow are shared.

Each of the artists (at least so far — I’m about halfway through now) is someone who has known deep pain and loss. I’ve read about the deaths of children, of spouses. I’ve read about untreated depression and despair. The author, like the artists themselves, is willing to stare in the face of the darkness and find the beauty that lies therein. Some people would certainly find this book to be uncomfortably dark, not the sort of message they’re looking for in Advent. For me, it’s refreshing and deeply meaningful.

I suppose that’s no surprise. Much of the art I create (through my writing) is also about staring into the pain, into the loss, into the darkness in my life, and trying to find the truth or the beauty, or most often the hope, therein. That’s part of why I love the Advent season, I think. To me, Advent is not a time of joyfully preparing for the Christmas festival. To me, Advent is a time of looking honestly and prayerfully into the darkness, and finding that there is hope hidden there. Finding that the good news of the Incarnation is real. And to me, the only way to hear the good news is in the context of the bad news that is so often our experience.

This morning, one of the quotes at the end of the chapter was by author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor writes this:

When we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?

Quoted in David Bannon, Wounded in Spirit, p. 54

I think that quote describes the way I try to view life, or at least the way I try to view my art. I think it helps explain why I’m so open about what I’m struggling with, why I share my story so freely. (People call me “brave” all the time for sharing my story, but I’ve never thought of it that way.) I think perhaps instead of bravery, what it is for me is a hope that there’s something or someone within the darkness. That there’s something or someone hidden away, and the only way to glimpse it is to look there, to write about what I see, and to share that writing with others.

My faith in God tells me that God is hidden there, just as God was hidden once in the manger, just as God was hidden once on the cross, just as God was hidden once in the “sound of sheer silence” that Elijah heard. The stories of Hebrew and Christian scripture resonate with me because they tell of a God who is there, a God who is loving, and God who showers grace down, a God who does all this from a hidden place. From a place of darkness.

Martin Luther talked about the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. He said that a theology of glory saw God in the beautiful, the powerful, the wealthy, the rewards given to the great. (I think Luther would look at the “prosperity gospel” of our time, which tells us that God wants us to be wealthy, and condemn it as a clear case of theology of glory.) On the other hand, a theology of the cross looks for God in the places of suffering, the places of weakness, the persecuted and the outcast, the unexpected. After all, that’s precisely where Christ was, from manger to cross. Luther wrote that “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.” Luther also wrote this about theology of glory vs. theology of the cross:

A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

–Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 53.

To Luther, therefore, what was real and what was true and what was of God could be found only in suffering, only in hiddenness, only in the cross. This is why the Lutheran expression of faith is so meaningful to me — that’s where I find God as well.

Here’s an example: over the next two weeks, two of the worship services I will be leading are “Blue Christmas” and Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve worship is joyous, happy, exciting, and I always preach a sermon that’s very light-hearted and fun. This is a good service! Blue Christmas, on the other hand, is quiet and pensive. We sing the more subdued songs of Christmas. We spend the time lighting candles and talking about the suffering and darkness in our lives. And I always preach a sermon that it honest, forthright, yet filled with hope. To me, that’s the deepest meaning of Christmas: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. To me, that’s what Advent is all about: preparing to see that light. So, to me, as fun as Christmas Eve is, Blue Christmas is where the meaning is.

In a way, my book Darkwater is an extended Blue Christmas sermon — honest, forthright, yet filled with hope. In a way, maybe all of my best writing is that. I love Advent Blue — that’s what I’m always seeking and writing about.

Photo by Adrien Ledoux on Unsplash

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