The Genius, The Bowl, The Bear, The Man
St. Paul's Episcopal Church | Louisburg, NC | Advent 2 - December 9, 2018
The waiting of Advent has begun. We prepare for the birth of Our Hope, Our Savior, Our Jesus.
Our sanctuary has become a waiting room. We find ourselves in this lovely and intimately warm gothic space, with our lush burgundy carpet, an ornate violet altar, and warmly polished wooden beams. But let’s not lose the sight and smell of that rickety shed, with those animals and wheat straw that will welcome the birth of Jesus in two weeks, two thousand years ago.
Together we wait with joy and hope for the child, whose Kingship will not be of this world.
Think of the rooms you have waited in in your life. I am reminded of all the cold checkerboard tiled floor rooms I have nervously waited in and read month old magazines; the dentist, the accountant, the doctor, the counselor, the insurance agent, the car dealer, the lawyer, the funeral home. All of them make me nervous. But this collective waiting of the next two weeks has none of those test results, nor the accompanying anxiety. Instead we quietly wait and remember this child, to be born from swimming in darkness of his mother’s womb, to walking in the light of our world. We join together in our hope of new beginnings and aspirational joy. But it’s not that simple, this adventure of Advent.
We still have two weeks. A lot can happen. We reflect. We wait. We hope. We worry if we are enough. And we think. We are apt to spin out of control if we do not slow ourselves down. My remarks this morning concern four ideas:
Most of my thoughts this morning are not about the infant Jesus, but about his cousin John and the adult life he lived as described in the Gospel reading from Luke for today. First though, let’s take a look at an image which was painted by the Renaissance genius Leonardo in 1483 of both John and Jesus as infants. The title of the image found in your bulletin is the Madonna of the Rocks. I want us to spend just a minute looking at the hands in this pyramidal composition.
Mary has her right hand around the infant John, but has her left hand in a gesture of blessing floating above the head of her son Jesus. Leonardo has dispensed with the contrived halos of the Middle Ages. He knows not to underestimate the intelligence of his patrons to perceive what is going on here. The slightly older toddler John prays to his cousin with his hands together while the attending angel on the bottom right comforts the baby Jesus as she strongly gestures, pointing back to John the Baptist. Jesus flashes the first peace sign you will ever see as he looks back to his slightly older cousin John. Let these hands lead you round and round this pyramidal cycle of love and hope. Where in the world has Leonardo put these folks? The landscape looks like the jaws of an ancient beast. How do these parts, both humanity and nature, fit together? That is an important component of Advent, seeing how we fit the parts of our life back together when we are a bit broken, and a little lost. This season of Hope gains her momentum from life following death, as soon as day follows night.
And we are always stronger when we heal in the places where we have been broken. This leads us to:
Think about one broken aspect of your life, possibly a fractured relationship which needs to be put back together. There is a Japanese Buddhist philosophy of embracing the flawed and imperfect in our lives which is called Kintsugi.
Kintsugi is a way of handling broken pottery – when a bowl breaks, practitioners of Kintsugi do not discard it, but glue the shards back together with gold lacquer. How the pieces fit together is not hidden in any way. Instead the brokenness of the bowl is in fact honored and highlighted. The justification of Kintsugi is that we should not discard the bowl that has been accidently broken with shame and disgust, but instead we should put our bowl, our lives, our selves, back together when we suffer through a period of loss. Our self- worth is born of our acceptance of these areas of repair. The shattering we each live through is not a final death, but a forgiving hope of healing from the scars which we must mend our way through. Individually and collectively we are sturdier in these mended places.
Both John and Jesus had an awareness of what the Buddhists call having “no mind.” Both John and his cousin Jesus would refer to this idea as “unconditional love.”
An expectant hope of new beginnings must encompass the ideas of non-attachment, the acceptance of change, and fate, as aspects of a fully lived human life. There is no need to hide our damage. In fact our wounds are made golden. We are fragile and susceptible to being hurt, physically, psychologically and spirituality. Yet it is a gift of this Season that our connection and empathy to each other’s brokenness forms the scaffolding of Hope, which is Advent.
The following poem is also a guide, a light pointing back to John which has humbled me. There is nothing convenient about living close to nature, yet it is required reading for this seasonal class in empathy. The poem, by Galwey Kinnell, is called The Bear. The poem is a metaphor of hope and life and death and resurrection and each of the 7 stanzas represents a day. So it is an interesting take on the creation story in Genesis. It is disturbing poem, scatologically speaking. Do you know the word, Scatological? SCAT, SCAR, SCATTER, SCRATCH, SCAB…. These are all oozy words, all physical and back to nature words. They have a texture and a smell of compost. They are life absorbing and life giving. We experience them in the wilderness wanderings of the Baptizer John.
In the poem, the hunter is an Inuit, an Eskimo, who hunts and kills a bear with a flexible 4” rib that he forages from a dead wolf’s carcass. How does he do that? He sharpens each end of the rib, bends it into a circle and freezes it in a block of seal blubber. Then it places it in the bear tracks in the snow. Life in the wilderness was not easy for John, or this Inuit hunter, nor especially this bear, whose has consumed this block of fat, and now has had its intestine punctured by this small sharpened bone, and is slowly, over a period of days losing body fluids and blood. This wound would prove fatal for the bear.
Time in the wilderness is no picnic. The hunter crawls, following the red stained snow, and on the sixth day, comes upon the bear’s lifeless body, and the weather turns for the worse. He then takes his knife, and disembowels the bear. Day seven finds the hunter climbing inside the body of the bear and surviving through the sub-zero night. The hunter has become the bear. He has become the reassuring cycle of nature. My reading of the Gospel today asks me to imagine John foraging and fusing with Mother Nature in his adult life.
John is relatively civilized. I mean he was wearing camel hair and leather belts, revealing his connection to nature not culture, not actually in the animal itself like this hunter. Like the Old Testament story of Jonah being consumed, then born of the whale, John is willingly consumed by nature, then born from this wilderness. In two weeks a baby will be born, and at the end of his earthly life he will be buried in a tomb, only to be resurrected in three days. As Christians we stand affirmed by this reassuring and repetitive cycle of life, death, life, death, life. This hope of the next is what the second Sunday of Advent is all about. Clearly life and death are but two parts of the same whole. This lesson is taught by the living, and giving of our lives. Each night we die, and in the morning we are reborn.
In closing, let’s return to John, the searcher, the scout, the Baptizer. John’s lone voice in the wilderness was both devoted and surrendered to Jesus. He knew that he was not the Christ, but that he came before him. He was not the circus. He was the poster telling you the circus was coming to town. He knew that he would become less as Jesus would become greater. He knew he would pay a cost, the ultimate cost for his beliefs.
The spirit of John’s life drove him to the wilderness from the comfort of his rabbi elite home. He wanted to rid himself of all that separated him from nature. He knew that his life was not about him. He knew his lessons were of water and the lessons of Jesus were of the Holy Spirit. He embraced his humility, but I do not think he was very polite about it. One of his truths to us that he knew who he was and who he wasn’t. This is our homework this morning, to grapple with this, who we are, and who we are not.
For me he occupies a space halfway between Jesus and the Apostles. God knows he worried when in prison. But he persevered to preach a message of Repentance and Damnation, speaking truth to power, paving the way for his cousin’s words of Mercy and Forgiveness.
As a servant John would grow unafraid of speaking the truth even when it would cost him his bodily life as he spoke about the immorality of Herod.
This Advent Season we each have preparations to make, valleys to fill in, hills to make low, and crooked roads to make straight. What truths are we being asked to address, and what safe places are we being asked to move away from?
Can you imagine the cost of your actions being your life as it was for John? Where did the Hope of his strength come from, and how can we somehow access some of it for ourselves?
Spare a few moments to ponder this while we wait together during the next 14 days. Don’t be afraid to look into your brother and sister’s eyes and see your own reflection. That will be the moment when darkness turns to light, when our individual death pivots to the collective love of life. When we do this, the spiritual rhythms of our lives gain momentum. That is John’s gift to us this morning.
As we await this birth, find some quiet space in the chill of Advent and humbly ask yourself,
“What, really, have I ever lost by dying?”