Advent IV - December 20, 2020
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 + Ps. 89:1-4, 19-26 + Romans 16:25-27 + Luke 1:26-38
Nations shall come to your Light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Happy 4th Sunday of Advent: I speak to you today in the Name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
Last week I met a friend in San Francisco for a mask-wearing, socially distanced, COVID appropriate outdoor-only walk. Just in case anyone was worried.
So, we met in the financial district on a beautiful elevated platform known as “Salesforce Park.” Replete with public squares, grassy lawns and dancing fountains whose flow and movement are triggered by city busses as they pass through the terminal underneath. One can find both a small playground and even a modest amphitheater as you wind around the pathway along the perimeter of the park.
The entire structure rises some 70 feet above ground level spanning 4 city blocks, and boasting over 600 trees and 16,000 plants which represent 13 diverse ecosystems worldwide.
The unexpected juxtaposition of ultra-modern glass skyscrapers seen through a canopy of exotic trees creates a landscape so futuristic as to make the Jetsons look more like the Flintstones. It is by any measure, a spectacular feat of engineering.
But it was not my first time at the park. I had been there once before well over a year ago, strolling along the perimeter pathway amidst the laughter of small children playing in the fountains, young lovers on the grassy lawns sharing a mid-afternoon nap; older couples sitting on the park benches reading books or newspapers, while millennials packed the picnic tables in the squares--most all of them entranced in their tablets and iPhones as they scarfed their lunch, all but oblivious to the rest of us in the outside world. I wouldn’t say the park was crowded, but it was certainly bustling. It had a hip ambiance that signaled a vibrant city, full of youth, vitality, entrepreneurial creativity, and optimism. It was a happy place, actually, where one could easily get lost in the art of people-watching, awash in cool breezes and warm sunshine so typical of the City by the Bay.
On this more recent visit, just several days ago, having arrived a few minutes before our scheduled meet-time, I relished again in beauty of the park as I awaited the arrival of my friend at our designated meeting point. Structurally the park was just as I had remembered it, just as beautiful, clean, and futuristic.
But this time something was palpably different. The entire park was all but empty, barren – no children in the playground, no couples on the perfectly manicured lawns; Every table in the plaza available for one’s choosing, and all the fountains lifeless as no busses passed beneath the terminal below.
I have to confess, it was peaceful, I had the place all but entirely to myself. But it was also eerie. The din of traffic 70 feet below seemed absorbed by the silence, the emptiness, the absence that enveloped the whole park. It felt something like a Hollywood set after all the actors had gone home.
When my friend arrived, he pointed out his own office building just across the street – one among that jungle of impressive glass skyscrapers that surrounded us on almost all sides.
“My office faces the park,” he said matter-of-factly. “I can look down right here onto this plaza…and most often it’s crowded with people. (“Yes, I remember,” I thought to myself).
“But not anymore he said. It is dead-quiet. Empty. Like it is now. “Kind of sad, actually…” he concluded a bit wistfully. And then, as if to state the obvious with the seriousness it deserved he punctuated his ruminations with a single word: “COVID,” he said with a mix of sadness and resignation.
We glanced silently at one another for a quick moment as if to acknowledge the somber reality of it all. “No doubt,” I said in return, somewhat at a loss for words.
The conversation quickly turned to pleasantries and to a vibrant discussion of the matters we had met to discuss, but not before my mind flashed for just an instant on an image of the globe – every park and square, every commons, every plaza. All of them, just like this one –empty and barren. It was chilling and awesome all at once to see that image so vividly in my mind’s eye.
Planet Earth is…well…Closed… until further notice.
This whole encounter – not just between my friend and me, but with the emptiness of the park itself, settled in me almost instantly as a kind of metaphor for something much greater. Something unique to Advent 2020.
As we observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, less than one week from Christmas – traditionally one of the most hustle and bustle times of the year – it is this emptiness and bareness that stands out for me not as a contraction but as an apt metaphor of preparation.
The Virgin, Mary of Nazareth, and her older cousin, Elizabeth, who is well beyond child-bearing years, but nonetheless, we are told is with child.
In what are closely paralleled stories in the gospel of Luke, the Annunciation to Mary in chapter 1:31, the angel Gabriel declares,
“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
And then goes on to inform her:
“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.”
In some ways, each of these women personify what it means to be empty and barren – Mary in her virginity, and Elizabeth (as Luke tells us) in her old age. But in each of them there is a certain fruitfulness, a certain promise, a certain hopefulness that each of them embodies.
No doubt Elizabeth was saddened, even ashamed of her “barrenness” in a patriarchal culture which stigmatized women who did not bear children, at a time when scientific ignorance would have blamed her even if the real problem lay with her husband.
And no doubt Mary was terrified by the prospect of the Angel’s message at a time when to be with-child out of wedlock could mean death by stoning.
The beauty and pageantry and romanticism of these beloved Christmas narratives rarely puts us in touch with these harsher cultural realities of ancient Israel. Realities which highlight the bravery, heroism and faithfulness that these women embody.
The power of the feminine, as it were, to create life, nurture life, give birth to life itself. And for Mary, in fact, to weave within her own womb the very DNA that would become God Incarnate.
Because we are told in the Lucan narrative that Elizabeth is already in her second trimester when Gabriel visits Mary, we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on June 24th – exactly six months before Christmas. John, who will light the way to Christ is born at the brightest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, but Jesus is born in the darkest time of year, when the light of the sun is faint and slanted, while both shadows and night are long.
But all of this – the emptiness, the barrenness, the darkness is but a prelude to the fullness of life.
In his sermons and treatises, the Great 13th century mystic and scholar, Meister Eckhart, teaches that the greatest Christian virtue is not love, but “detachment.” Because without detachment we cannot love purely.
About this he provides many illustrations, but perhaps the most poignant metaphor he adopts to make his case is that of the receptivity of a blank writing tablet. The virtue of detachment, he says, is like a blank writing tablet because any tablet already filled with words, no matter how sublime, leaves no room to write anything new (CC, 158-59).
And so too of Mary and Elizabeth – it was precisely in their emptiness, their barrenness that God was able to do something new and life-giving and salvific. But we cannot forget the long years – indeed the lifetime of suffering Elizabeth endured, confronting social stigma, the frustration and humiliation of unanswered prayers, mourning the family she always wanted but had to accept she would never have.
Much as we tend to favor the celebration of fullness, fecundity, and light it is in emptiness, bareness, darkness… in which miracles are wrought, and the divine is given birth in the world.
The darkness of a virginal womb at Christmas. The darkness of an empty tomb at Easter. And indeed the darkness that broke upon the zenith of midday as the moon overshadowed the sun while Christ hung upon the cross, midair as it were between heaven and earth.
This year, indeed tomorrow, December 21st, the very darkest day, of what will no doubt be remembered as the darkest year in modern history, will witness the bright light of what astronomers call the “Great Conjunction” – that rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that that occurs roughly only every 20 years.
This year, however, in an uncanny, perhaps even providential display of celestial alignment, something rarer still will occur. Jupiter and Saturn will pass even closer than they have in nearly 400 years. And as if that were not mysterious enough, this conjunction will occur not in the daytime, when the sun’s brilliance would blind us from witnessing it, but for the first time in nearly 800 years it will occur at night, when our sky is dark giving virtually every corner of the world a glimpse of this great conjunction with the unaided eye.
It is only the vast emptiness, bareness, and darkness of interstellar space that will make it possible for us to witness the promise of this heavenly light.
Indeed, it is that same vast empty darkness in which another star rose some 2000 years ago, hovering, as it did, over the place where the Christ-child lay, as if the universe itself bent low to gaze upon the birth of Eternity in our midst. And following after came Magi, those great watchers of the night sky, mysterious and elusive, traveling from foreign lands and bearing gifts in fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy:
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).
So too proclaims Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, rejoicing in his wife’s pregnancy after a lifetime of bareness. He proclaims in his Benedictus of Luke 1:78-79:
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way peace.
Sisters and brothers, if Advent 2020 is to teach us anything, let it be to assure us that the emptiness of our cities and streets, our public squares and parks, the bareness of our loneliness and isolation, the darkness of pandemic that has descended upon our planet, the world over – all of these reveal not the absence of God, but the promise that God is indeed doing something new, conceiving the inconceivable, birthing a new era, a new day, a new humanity.
There are two heroines presented to us in the gospel today, whose strength, forbearance, endurance, trust, and vitality have quite literally heralded the coming of the reign of God, and given birth to God in the world. A movement of the divine that began not in the crowded Temple Mount of Jerusalem, not in the bustling streets of Rome, but on the isolated, lonely, desolate edges of the Empire. In the dark of night and the emptiness of a womb. This is where the work of God begins! This blessed loneliness, this blessed emptiness, this blessed night.
Perhaps it was with this dark faith that the psalmist was able to pray the prayer we can make our own this Advent in the Year of our Lord 2020:
I will say to the darkness cover me,
and the night wrap itself around me,
For to you even darkness is light, my Lord;
And the night is as bright as the day. (Ps. 139)
There is indeed a fecundity to the darkness, a fullness anticipated by emptiness. It was the great 16th Century mystic, John of the Cross who asked rhetorically, “when can one see farther? In the day or the night?” Intuitively we assume, “the day.” But he goes on to say, it is only after the sun, in its blinding brilliance has set, that we can see farther, much farther into interstellar space, as it were, where for the first time distant stars and galaxies reveal themselves against the night sky.
Look up, then, my friends in Christ, just as the glass towers spiraling upward around an empty park drew my vision upward to the sky above.
Let not our countenance be downcast as we approach this great feast of Christ’s Nativity, or we may miss it – that great conjunction of planets which the extravagant love of God sent spiraling in their course eons ago, perhaps, we might dare hope, in anticipation of this very moment in our planetary history – but which would all but be missed on us without the vast empty darkness of interstellar space to reveal it.
May then the darkness of this Holy Advent wrap itself around us, around the very planet that sustains us, as if a womb preparing us yet again for birth of Christ anew.
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.