Holy Longing


November 29, 2020                         Advent I

Isaiah 64:1-9



“Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down!”

I don’t know how often I have heard over the past few weeks from friends – many clergy, but not all: “I can’t wait for Advent”. Now for many of us, Advent is a favourite time in the church year, so maybe that’s not surprising. But what I’m not hearing a lot this year is “I can’t wait for Christmas!” Christmas this year is going to be weird, we know that already. Family visits, gathering with friends, travel, church will all be severely curtailed. We will have to make something different out of Christmas this year, and many of us are afraid it will be a disappointment.

But Advent is different. If people are especially looking forward to Advent this year, it may be because it seems particularly fitting. We are living in Advent times. That is to say, we are living in a time of waiting. Redemption has been promised – in the case of Covid, we look to a vaccine, and follow every news report on vaccine development with eager interest. We firmly trust the end of Covid will come, but for now we have to wait. And the waiting can be difficult. It is fraught with anxiety, and loneliness, and fear. It is filled with grief, grief for family and friends we cannot see, grief for opportunities we are missing, and of course, grief for the dead and the dying. Although we are always aware of how fortunate we are in Nova Scotia, we are also aware that we are living on one edge of a great catastrophe.

And so the themes of Advent ring especually true for us this year: the theme of darkness, what it is to live through a dark time, a time of anxiety and hopelessness; the theme of waiting, the challenge of feeling helpless and not knowing how to make waiting productive; the themes of courage and hope, and how hard they can sometimes be; the theme of deep longing for redemption, for release from what has dampened our lives into a full and free life. Since this is what our life looks like already, of course people look forward to Advent, a time when we cultivate the spiritual resources to deal with precisely this kind of life.

The Scripture readings for today may at first glance not seem so helpful to us. The images of skies being ripped open, of stars falling from the heavens, of the Son of Man coming on the clouds seem strange and alien to us. In fact, much of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible can read a bit like a bad science-fiction movie to our modern eyes. But there is something there nonetheless. The secret to reading apocalyptic texts in the Bible is not to get caught up in taking them literally as predictions. They are expressions of a deeply felt longing for redemption. The key is read through the bizarre images to see the longing that lies behind them, because this longing is holy and precious and real.

“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” We know next to nothing of the prophet who wrote these words, the third of the prophets collected in the book of Isaiah. Third Isaiah wrote after the return from exile in Babylon, when the people of Israel were rebuilding their country. That is about all we know. Except that times must have been hard, a constant struggle with disappointment and failure, their spirits sickened by injustice and violence. We can infer this because we can hear the intensity of longing for redemption, the impatience that echoes through these words. We have heard the stories of old, of God’s great deeds of power in the Exodus – if only God would come to us like that now, tearing open the veil of the sky like a curtain, setting the too too solid rock of the mountains seething like water at the boil. Whatever was going on in his life, we can hear the urgent, heart-sick, desperate longing for redemption from struggle and injustice.

Over two thousand years later this longing struck a chord in a German Jesuit priest by the name of Friedrich Spee. On the basis of these words he composed a hymn that has become a beloved German Advent carol. (You heard it as the opening hymn in today’s service.)

Friedrich Spee lived in the early 1600s; and though he had a privileged position, he lived in an awful time. The Thirty Years War was ravaging Germany with marauding armies; and, perhaps driven by anxiety about that violence, his area was hit by a wave of witch-hunting. As a priest, it was Spee’s duty to act as chaplain to those accused of witchcraft, to be at their side as they were tortured and led to be burned at the stake. He did so as a person completely convinced of their innocence. In fact, he went on to write a treatise condemning both witch trials and torture, a work that was influential in bringing these horrors to an end.

But in the meantime – can you imagine the burden he had to bear, day after day, watching human evil and stupidity crush innocent people with such violence and cruelty – and all that in the name of God? We can understand where the intensity of his pain and his longing comes from. In that situation, he has no use for a faith that only encourages everyone to be a bit nicer. He needs the urgency of the Biblical prophets who have looked cruelty and folly in the eye, and call down God’s justice to tear open the heavens and come with power to set things right.

I envy this urgency, this intensity of longing. Not the pain that lies behind it, thank you very much, I don’t want that. But that the Spirit would awaken something more of that holy longing for justice, for healing, for redemption in me. It is a longing that is born out of compassion, out of a clear and caring view of human suffering. And it is a longing that is consummated in hope, and the intensity of our longing is met by a promise, by a glimmer of God’s own caring attention that reminds us that we are in God’s hands. These three, the compassion, the longing, the hope, each is holy – and together they mark out the spiritual landscape of Advent.

Perhaps this year, as we come somewhat beaten up to this holy season, having been put through the emotional wringer – perhaps we have been made ready to encounter Advent anew, to learn its spiritual lessons perhaps it can teach us that God can be met in darkness, that as we are overcome with care and grief and desperation, we will find God leaning into our longing with ever deeper compassion.