When I was in Manitou Conference more than 25 years ago now, a group of us started a mid-winter retreat at the Anishinaabe Retreat Centre on Manitoulin Island. It was a Jesuit/1st Nations retreat centre on a small lake; the sanctuary was in the round and it was a wonderfully quiet and peace-filled setting. The retreat we started was for congregational leaders to get a little pick-me-up after the busy Christmas season. It was a great mid-winter time for rest and reflection.
One year, we re-read the Christmas story 3 weeks after Christmas had occurred. As we were reading Luke’s story from the very beginning, it came time for one of the older women to read a part of Mary’s story; just after the Angel had given Mary the news that she would bear a child, the line read, “How can this be.” This woman, whom I knew fairly well, said the line in an incredulous voice; then, there was one of those pauses, and she burst out laughing with an infectious laugh that drew us all in. We laughed until tears streamed down our faces, some of us not completely sure of what we were laughing at! After we calmed down, she explained that when she said the line in response to the Angel, it kind of came out as if she was saying it of herself, incredulously, she said, because she was of an age where she couldn’t possibly have children. Well, she started laughing again and we joined in.
It’s always hard to describe a moment like this when people laugh at something so insignificant and you’re telling the story afterwards and everyone kind of smiles politely. As I recall, we stopped the reading and reflected a bit on that shared moment. The incredulous nature of it. The sheer nonsense of it, in the true meaning of the word. The fantastical nature of that moment… and not just for the woman who read the line, but for Mary, and for all of us as we began to think about the ways we experience the Spirit’s presence.
The Christmas story, whatever we think about it in terms of what actually happened or not, is an incredulous story that has an important underlying truth. We all captured a moment of incredulity at that retreat centre on Manitoulin Island that got to the heart of what this season is all about, and really, what the prayer shawls are all about—we are not alone in whatever we face. There is a bond, a thread—a divine thread—that sews us together in ways that we can see and understand and in ways that are sometimes beyond our knowing to such an extent that all that is left is incredulity!
This apocalyptic story from Mark, which we also find in Matthew and Luke and that comes up on the first Sunday of Advent every year, is just such an incredible story. It’s in the same vein as Revelation and parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Weird and wonderful things occur, but the bottom line is that we aren’t alone… that golden thread of God’s love binds us together and trails into the future, no matter how uncertain and challenging, with a hope that is more than just mere optimism, but is utter astonishment.
I think that is the message the apocalypse, as it’s called, in Mark’s Gospel, a sentiment found in Psalm 46, which maybe Jesus was thinking about: “God is in the midst of the city, and it shall not be moved… The nations are in an uproar, empires totter, and when God speaks, the earth melts. The God of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob, Rachel and Leah is our refuge…. God makes wars cease to the ends of the earth, breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.” And then, how does this Psalm end? It ends with those powerful words, “Be still and know that I am God!”
Maybe the followers of Jesus and the Jews trying to get out of the way of the war with the Romans quietly prayed this mantra, “Be still and know that I am God.” When linked with breath, this prayer can be a powerfully calming tool… sitting in a waiting room, feeling anxious about news, uncertain about a new job, feeling a loss after the death of a loved one, or maybe going to work and facing uncertainty—we all need to say this prayer mantra to find courage. The underlying sense of the prayer, “Be still and know that I am God” is ultimately… hope that we are not alone.
Hope is not a pie-in-the-sky belief that everything will be alright. Hope is a deep sense that something of the creative Spirit will be borne in us or in the world. Hope is a deep sense of love percolating through fear. Hope is a little like healing versus cure. A cure is a physical shift from disease to health, but healing is something deeper, something Spiritual, something mystical that says, “I’m not alone; I am a whole being” Healing is about co-creating a new existence in God’s love; hope is co-creating a new existence for ourselves and for the world. God and God’s Spirit is at work in us, through us, and with us to create a new future—HOPE.
And so, in spite of climate disruption, we have hope that we CAN co-create a new future of climate justice. In spite of COVID-19, we hope that we CAN co-create a new future of humanity based on compassion and deep regard for one another. In spite of racism, or drug addiction, or depression, or whatever we might face individually or together in society, we CAN cultivate a hope of co-creating a new future of justice, love, compassion and life.
And the prayer at the end of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” is a great starting point. As we pray this short mantra, we breathe… we breathe in the words “be still and know” and on the out-breath, we say “that I am God.” Breath, Spirit, God’s presence, the sacred and Holy Being is breathed in and as we breathe out, with God, we breathe out a fundamental hope of co-creating a new life. Breathing in God’s Spirit, breathing out God’s presence leading to life.
Today’s prayer shawl blessing is all about this breathing in and breathing out, all about this hope and this healing. Hope today on the 1st Sunday of Advent is about being co-creators with God in whatever moment we find ourselves and in whatever new direction of wholeness we collectively pray for the world and for those who are ill.
Have a blessed Advent. Amen.