Searching for Christ with senses we don't have

The sunrise over the Hudson River at Holy Cross

Advent 1B

In the name of God: open our eyes, open our ears, open our minds.  Amen.

A couple of weeks ago I was on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY.  I’ve been making retreats there a couple of times a year for the past few years.  It gives me a chance to intentionally reconnect with my prayer life and to take some time for silence and discernment.  It’s become a really important part of my spiritual life. 

One of the benefits of intentional retreat time like this is that it immerses me into a world outside of my own.  The same way I often talk about Lent as being a season that’s meant to shake us up and to see the world from a different perspective – that’s what retreat does for me spiritually.  I have a common cause with the members of the monastic community: a life dedicated to furthering the mission of Jesus Christ.  But at the same time, we go about this vocation in different ways.  Peering into their way of life from the margins of their community helps me to better understand my own way of life and my own community. 

That all comes from embedding myself into the rhythm of their lives.  Worship services five times a day.  Strict silence from the final prayers each night until after breakfast, and general silence during the other hours.  The one time when conversation is encouraged each day is during the evening meal.  During lunch, a member of the community reads for a time, and then the rest of the meal is taken in silence.

When I was there, they were reading a book by Ed Yong called An Immense World.  It’s a book that’s been on my “need to read” list for a little while now, so I appreciated getting a little more exposure to it.  It’s about exploring the sensory reality of the world – and how that reality goes far beyond our typical understanding of the senses.  Because we define the world so much by our own senses, it’s hard for us even to imagine the world from the perspective of an organism with senses that are different than our own.  And there are many.  There are creatures that can’t see all of the colors we see and there are others that can see far more than we can see.  Bats us echolocation – a sense we can mimic electronically, but can’t perceive with much accuracy for ourselves.  There are other creatures that can sense electromagnetism – a sense we can’t come close to understanding.

So the question of the book is essentially, how can we begin to understand creatures that experience the world so wildly differently than we do?  And, how is our own understanding of the world lacking, with our inability to sense so much of it?

It occurs to me today that with the start of this new Christian year; with our return to the season of waiting and hopeful expectation that is Advent – tapping into this thought experiment about how other creatures experience the world might give us some new insight.

We talk about waiting, but for what?  Not just Christmas, there’s more to it than that.  And we talk about hopeful expectation, but why?  Of course, Jesus is the answer.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  The incarnation of God through the person of Jesus.

Those are great theological concepts, but it’s hard to pin down what that really means.

Advent is like trying to experience the world through a sense we don’t have and couldn’t possibly understand.  Imagine describing purple to someone who was blind since birth.  How would you do it?

In Advent, we are the blind-since-birth, and the incarnation of God is the color that the season is trying to describe for us.

There aren’t words to wrap around it.  We don’t have the senses necessary to really know it.  So the church comes at it with metaphor.  That – metaphor – is the only real bridge between the world we know and the world we can’t know.  So the Gospel of Mark uses one of the most ancient languages of metaphor in the world of faith: apocalyptic images.  End of the world language.  To imagine a new world, we have to imagine the one we have now going away.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

This is a kind of biblical literature that is often lost on us Episcopalians.  It’s been coopted by people claiming to be biblical literalists – but the writers of the Bible never imagined writings like this as literal predictions of a future on its way.  Instead, writings like this were meant as a bridge to help us cross between the world we know and the world we can’t know.  They pointed out that a new way of seeing the world was coming – a way of seeing the world that we can’t describe, because we don’t have the senses or the experience to truly grasp it.  It’s a world we can only know by experiencing it.  The only way of ushering in a new world is to sunset the one we know now.

That’s what Advent is about.  It’s about searching for the language necessary to describe this new reality that we don’t have the tools to fully understand.

Those of us who have been through a lot of Advents have to be careful.  We know that it ends at Christmas.  But that doesn’t mean we know the new world.  We know that there are four Sundays, and we know that the Advent wreath glows a little brighter with each passing week, but that doesn’t mean we know the true brightness of the new world that is dawning.  We may have even had glimpses of this new world in years gone by, life may have even seasoned us in such a way that the old world has crumbled for us and we’ve seen the new one dawning, but that doesn’t mean we know what new glimpses there are to still emerge.

So that’s why we wait.  That’s why we engage in this exercise of hopeful expectation.  Because God, in the person of Jesus, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is still speaking new senses to us that we can scarcely imagine.  The old is still passing away, and the new is still dawning.  We haven’t figured it out just yet.  Amen.