Tis the season to be jolly. Fa la la la la, la la la la.
What if you dont feel like it? Are you obligated?
This is the question I want to puzzle through with you now, and I want to begin with an image that seems to have nothing to do with any winter holiday.
Some of you will remember last January at our Louisiana Lullaby concert, when we formed a Second Line, and we danced all up and down these aisles twirling umbrellas to the sound of Dixieland jazz. Do you remember that? Do you remember how we almost broke the floor and crashed through to the basement!?
Ive learned a little more about the Second Line tradition since then, and its a more complicated expression of joy and celebration than I realized last year.
Heres how it works: At a New Orleans funeral, the mourners leave the church and the pallbearers put the casket on a horse-drawn wagon with wheels. The mourners line up behind the casket on the way to the graveyard, and they all walk, or dance, behind the wagon while a jazz band plays spirituals and dirges in that inimitable slow, grinding Dixieland jazz style. The people in the back of the line the second line-- hold umbrellas aloft, and they walk and dance their own freestyle dance to the music. They dance because of their belief that things are better in the world beyond this one. They dance because someone they love has gone home to glory.
I learned this from watching the documentary, Requiem: When the Levees Broke on HBO the other night, which is a powerful film in four parts that really brings you to the Gulf Coast from the perspective of the people who have lived there all or most of their lives. It focuses on the city of New Orleans. Director Spike Lee includes a lot of footage from funerals many of which are very painful to watch -- including a mock funeral held for Hurricane Katrina herself. Where ever there was a funeral in New Orleans, there was the music and the dancing parade, the Second Line, the hope for coming glory if not here, then in the next life. It reminded me of the words from the Book of Common Prayer: Even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Alleluia. Fa la la la la and alleluia. Two words we like to sing with wide open, happy mouths, without really knowing what they mean. What alleluia means, actually, is Glory in the highest. Alleluia is a word shared by Jewish and Christian tradition. Muslims have their own version: Alhamdulillah.
Alleluia. If you listen carefully, you can hear this song in all of nature.
The birds have a version of it. So does the ocean, and the winds. Its the theme song of all creation, and it contains equal parts awe and joy. Alleluia. Glory. Joy. Alleluia is the response of the living thing to the joy of being alive.
For lucky people who have everything they need, alleluia is an expression of gratitude for all the goodness of their lives. For people who mostly have comfortable lives but who believe that the world needs a lot of improving, alleluia can be an expression of hope for what might yet be, and a commitment to participate in bringing it about. And for those whose lives are not working out well, alleluia is an expression of faith that there is a better world beyond this one. In that case, alleluia means, Thank God this will all be over soon, and Ill be going home to glory.
Wherever you sing alleluia, every person singing it is going to have a different interpretation of it. For some, glory is what theyve got now, today. For some, glory is coming, and theyre working for it. And for others, this life is a stinking mess. Their glory isnt going to come in this lifetime.
We all live all those alleluias together. We wait for glory together. However good life is, we certainly know its not good for all the Earths people and all the Earths creatures. We wait for glory, not passively, but patiently.
Its a paradox we havent thought about much: how much can I actually do to create goodness and health in my life and in the world, and how much can I actually not do? How much am I personally capable of affecting the greater good, and how much am I personally capable of waiting for the world to turn in its accustomed way and for God to work on human souls without my help?
Advent is a season in the church year devoted to exploring that second option: that is, the option of not doing, but waiting. Waiting for the world to turn in its accustomed way, being still and silent and pregnant, paying deep and close and quiet attention to the way that the Spirit of Love and new life -- by whatever name you wish to call it moves in the world and makes all things new.
Advent is a season about finding religious meaning in waiting. I admit that I dont know what to make of that, exactly. What is the value of waiting? Where is the spiritual meaning in waiting?
Say youre standing in the doorway of a bakery full of chocolate cakes. You hesitate. Someone says, What are you waiting for!? You run to the cakes and have at it.
Say youre at a convention center where hundreds of people are being housed following a hurricane. The cots stretch out for what seems like miles. You hesitate in the doorway. Someone says, What are you waiting for? You rouse yourself to walk through the door. Theres work to be done.
What are you waiting for? Its usually a rhetorical question that means, Get to it! But not in the season of Advent. At Advent, we ask, What are you waiting for, and its an open question. Theres no ready answer. Theres no cake and theres no cots. Its a season, four weeks before Christmas, to hunker down and figure out what we are really waiting for, and how we feel called to help it happen when we do know. Advent is a season of hesitating in the doorway and being comfortable there.
I look around at some of our pregnant women here this morning, and they are doing some of the most intense waiting a human can do. They hear the stories about mother Mary this time of year, their bodies can relate to the urgent need to find room in the inn, a bed to lay on and bear that child. They are waiting for new life. They know its coming. They couldnt keep it from coming if they wanted to. They have to be ready, but this cant be rushed. Theyve got to wait. Their bodies are teaching them that creation takes time.
While the mothers are waiting for life to come, other people are waiting for life to end. They are keeping vigil, waiting for a loved one to pass on, waiting for that last breath, learning that death cant be rushed any more than birth. They are learning that no amount of love can hold death back. They are waiting the arrival of the mystery.
Some people are waiting to hear about a job that they need, or waiting for a sense of vitality to return to their working lives because theyre bored and uninspired. Theyre waiting in the dark, trying to remember what it was like to love their profession, or to have one. Theyre learning more about themselves and who they are, what is valuable about them. They are struggling with patience and self-acceptance, and a sense of meaning. They are waiting for a breakthrough.
Some people are waiting to see if their new medication for depression is going to be the one that relieves some of their suffering. Others wait on a treatment for cancer, or for a surgery or a medical advancement they hope can cure them. They are waiting, and struggling to accept that healing takes time, that healing doesnt always mean physical curing, and that life is always full of unknowns and that we have less control than we would like.
Africans in Sudan are waiting to see if the rest of the world cares enough to intervene with the genocide in Darfur. They are waiting and dying while the rest of the world hesitates in the doorway. Iraqis are waiting in fear and chaos for some resolution to come out of a bloody civil war and occupation. Americans from the Gulf Coast are waiting for FEMA checks, waiting for something to feel secure again in their lives. All of these people are waiting for justice. They are waiting for mercy. They are waiting in the darkness of abandonment, trying to hold onto hope, because it is part of the human condition to hold onto hope when there seems no reason to have any.
Some waiting is rich. Some waiting is tragic. The first candle of the Advent wreath symbolizes hope. The idea is that, wherever we are in the condition of waiting, there can be hope. The second candle of the Advent wreath symbolizes peace. The idea is that, wherever we are in the condition of waiting, we believe in the coming of peace. The third candle of the Advent wreath symbolizes joy. The idea is that, wherever we are in the condition of waiting, we must practice the faithfulness of joy.
And that trips me up every time.
Its hard enough to wait in the darkness, feeling things out, abiding with what is, anticipating what comes next, and daring to hope for new life, a new vision, a new and life-giving way that might emerge at the end of all the waiting.
Its hard enough to do this in a peaceful, loving and hopeful way. But to sing praises while its happening? To sing Glory, Alleluia in the darkness is a hard thing to do.
That faithful people should be joyful people is not only a Christian idea. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the Hasidic teacher, says, Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital. A Sufi Muslim teacher says,Why arent you dancing with joy at this very moment? is the only relevant spiritual question.
I struggle with this. I am working on understanding the spiritual importance of joy. It is much harder for me to understand how to practice joy than to practice, say, compassion, or forgiveness (not that those are easy). I wish I had deeper wisdom to give you about joy today, but let me say this: I think that the joyful heart is one that has a lot of practice in the art of gratitude. I think that the joyful heart is the one that trusts, and has faith, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I think that the joyful heart is one that is a patient heart, that has faith in the possibility of reconciliation and grace. And I suspect that those who quest after happiness may be on the wrong path to Joy. Happiness is a temporary state of being that depends on good things happening. Joy is a spiritual state that is not reliant on exterior reality. Joy is deeper than happiness, and a lot more mysterious.
I was at another funeral this past August for Mitzi Railsback, not a jazz funeral. Far from it: it was in Cohasset, at the beautiful historic Unitarian Church there.
I didnt know Mitzi but I learned from her eulogy that she was absolutely nuts about Christmas. She was apparently the all-time amazing decorator and gift-giver and celebrator. She had a Christmas all year round spirit. I sat there in the very hot church in August and I thought about this. Most people I know, quite frankly have kind of come to hate Christmas. They hate the crazy materialism of it, the frantic shopping, the unrealistic expectations, the over-indulging, the getting stabbed in the eye by a branch putting lights on the tree. They dont so much celebrate Christmas as drag themselves through it.
I thought about Mitzi, a woman I never met (but wish I had), and I imagined her having her own dark times of waiting, of hoping, of not knowing what was next, but of holding faith all year long in the coming of peace, and joy. I imagined her summoning the Advent spirit at other times of year from the strength of her faithfulness to it and thinking to herself, Never mind. Christmas is coming. Beauty and joy are coming, and all the things I love best. I imagine that this comforted her, and that just as soon as was remotely appropriate, she set about making Christmas, and making joy and beauty for the people she loved.
Mitzi died and was buried in August. So imagine how startled I was in the heat of that New England meetinghouse at her funeral when the minister announced our closing hymn, Oh Come All Ye Faithful. In August?? We stood and we sang it, and we were, in fact, faithful, joyful and triumphant together, remembering that even in the darkness of the unknown and the darkness of the waiting, and even in the darkness of death, there is an alleluia.
May she rest in peace, and may we rest in the darkness of Advent in hope, in peace, in love and in joy.