Homily for Sunday, December 3, 2017
The season of Advent is a season filled with beauty. Advent’s anticipation of birth and new life is beautiful. Advent’s stillness and quiet are beautiful. The Collects of Advent—like we heard this morning: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life…”—the Collects are beautiful. Advent’s music—“Sleepers, wake,” “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” “O Come, O come, Emmanuel”—Advent’s music is beautiful. Advent’s art—like the “Annunciations” of Fra Angelico, of da Vinci, or of Botticelli – the art is beautiful. Advent is a season of beauty!
So often we think of beauty as something that brings us to a place of wonder or gratitude or that makes us feel “better.” This morning’s reading from Isaiah seems out of place, then, with its language of violence, anger and sin.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…
so that the nations might tremble at your presence,”
“You were angry, and we sinned… our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
“The rest of Advent may be beautiful,” we might say, “but this reading from Isaiah—and to a lesser extent the Gospel of Mark—these readings describe violence, tell of anger, and speak of sin and impending judgment… How do they fit with this otherwise beautiful season?”
Wine critic Terry Theise says that beauty is multidimensional; beauty is bigger than something that elicits wonder or gratitude and that makes us feel “good.” In his book Reading Between the Vines, Theise contemplates a glass of Riesling during a tasting at a German vineyard:
Beauty dilates the senses. That’s the first thing that happens; any beauty, whether of language, flavor or sound. It penetrates us, and we absorb it with such a charged vividness that we suddenly grow aware of this quality’s absence from ordinary experience. If the beauty is complex, we feel our minds scrambling to take it all in before it’s gone, to make sense of it… As the senses dilate to admit this strangely stunning beauty, a silence enters, too. For now, there is only this. You’d forgotten the mere world could include this, and something dormant in you awakens. The ordinary in you will not suffice for this. Such beauty is a pledge to which you must attend.
So far, so good. This is the kind of beauty that uplifts, that awakens, that draws us and demands our attention, that is filled with wonder and gratitude and can leave us in a stunned silence. This is a beauty we can easily recognize.
But there is a further dimension to beauty, says Theise , a dimension that includes ferocity. Even rage, and even violence. Still drinking the same glass, Theise continues:
The first things felt are gratitude and wonder. But there’s more. Beauty is a fierce thing. It doesn’t let up, it invades you, even violates you; it will have its way, and that way is ecstasy. And of the many notes in this ecstatic chord, one of them is rage. I don’t know why, but it’s there. Maybe it’s because we can never seem to rise high enough to meet beauty at its level. Maybe it’s because we spend too much time subduing rage and frustration, that when pure emotion is finally released, we get the whole sloppy mess, not just the pretty parts… The effect [of beauty] is strangely violent, even as it overwhelms us with pleasure.
It is this multidimensional beauty—a beauty that includes invasion, rage and violence—that we see in Isaiah. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”—“Invade us!” the prophet implores. “So that the mountains would quake at your presence… that the nations might tremble”—“Let that invasion be violent,” he says. “You were angry… [you] have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” “You were enraged at us,” the prophet says, “you have had your way with us.”
At its best, the beauty of Advent is bigger than its sense of anticipation, its quiet stillness, its Collects, music and art. At its best, Advent’s beauty is “a fierce thing… [that] invades [us], even violates [us].” Because at its best, Advent’s beauty is the beauty of our human hearts making space to let God in. Sometimes, when our heart makes space for God, the beauty or our hearts’ doing so is still and quiet, like Elijah hearing the “still, small voice.” Sometimes, when our heart makes space for God, the beauty or our hearts’ opening is worthy of being painted, like the Annunciation. Sometimes the beauty of our heart making space for God is like music. But often, the beauty of our hearts’ making space for God is a “sloppy mess, not just the pretty parts.” The long journey of making space for God often includes frustration. “How long, O Lord?” cries the Psalmist. “How long will you hide your face from me… must I have grief in my heart, day after day?” The journey of making space for God can include rage: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” God asks Jonah. “Yes,” retorts Jonah, “angry enough to die!” The journey to make space for God often includes violence. Remember Paul and Silas in prison, and how an earthquake shattered open the doors of the prison? It often takes an “earthquake” to crack open the doors of our heart such that they are receptive to making space for God.
As our heart makes space for God, the first thing felt may be gratitude and wonder. “But there’s more. Beauty is a fierce thing. It doesn’t let up… it will have its way. And that way is ecstasy.” In the end, if we are able to open the doors of our heart and make space for God, isn’t the beauty of our doing so an ecstasy, a “standing outside” of ourselves, something paradoxically both inside, yet outside, of our ordinary experience? And isn’t this ecstasy—God entering our heart—deep-down what we truly want?
We practice the beauty of God’s ferocity each Sunday. Here in the sacrament of Eucharist, we are each week “invaded” by Jesus’ body and blood. Weekly, as we here remember his Passion, we are reminded of the rage and violence that Jesus’ entry into our world occasioned. I hope that, as we let Christ in during the Eucharist, and as we prepare in this season to remember his first coming at Christmas, and as we look forward to his second coming “in power and great glory,” I hope that we will be open to seeing the beauty of our heart making space for God. Our hearts’ making space for God is extraordinarily beautiful—a complex beauty that contains wonder and gratitude, and also ferocity, and maybe even sometimes rage and violence. For God desires us and will not let up. God will have God’s way with us and—if we are able to make space within—we will discover that that way is ecstasy. God’s ecstasy, our hearts’ ecstasy, that God has made his dwelling here, in our hearts.