Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
--Psalm 80:1-3 (NRSV)
"Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat; please put a penny in the old man's hat." On Christmas Eve my daughter and her three girl cousins will sing that song at their grandfather's house, just as their dads and mom once did. I can't wait to hear it. It's the season of anticipation. Children feel it particularly. They can't wait for Christmas to come. Even adults have particular things we look forward to in the season. In my small church, we look forward to the annual Hanging of the Greens, and many people tell me how much they treasure the lighting of the candles at the end of the Christmas Eve service. I also look forward to some secular pleasures: seeing the strings of Christmas lights appear around town and especially a large and lively representation of the Grinch on the porch roof of a Victorian house in my neighborhood.
It's against my family traditions to like such things. We never had more than a single, tasteful candle at each window. Why have I come to appreciate the lights so much? I have formed a theory over the past eighteen years, and it is that we need more light here in Maine because it gets so very dark. My hometown in Virginia is just enough further west in the time zone, and enough further south, that sunset comes later than it does for us here. I remember during my first winter in Maine having to turn on the living room lamps at a quarter to 3—and that was in a sunny room! It shocked me. Perhaps I hadn't been paying attention before. But I never remember having been so aware of the darkness as I have been living here.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is a time of encroaching darkness. The season of shorter days and longer nights allows us to identify with the people of long ago, those people who knew the rhythms of the year but couldn’t explain them scientifically. They had to wonder when the sun would return. They waited, just as we wait for the Son. The waiting is the hardest part. Living with the unknown is like driving after a storm when the streetlights have lost their power; just as we wait and hope for the electricity to return, people of long ago hoped for the light of God to shine again in their lives. The refrain is repeated throughout Psalm 80: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
In the Psalm the people cry out to God, complaining that their prayers have gone unheeded. They feel abandoned by God. The psalmist names some of the sons of Jacob, the tribes of Israel. They understood themselves to be chosen as God’s particular people. Why would God desert them? In that darkness, they could imagine only one source of light: God’s face.
There was an Advent when I dwelt in that place of darkness and disconnection.
After losing a baby with a genetic abnormality, I was terrified when I became pregnant again; my history increased the risks for this new pregnancy. I didn't want to tell anyone I was expecting a baby. In both a spiritual and a psychological sense, I was holding my breath until I heard the test results. The short days, and the darkness, both hung on me that year. Where was God in this? The loss of my son two years earlier caused a shift in my understanding of God. I had always been taught that good people were rewarded and bad people suffered, and naïvely I believed it. This meant that quite a few things I didn’t like about my life must be my fault, and my usual way of praying was to beg God to change me!
I felt my way through the darkness alone in that Advent of 1994. I needed to find a new way to pray, and it did not come easily. God was not some Santa Claus who would reward my holiness, nor some Grinchy Claus who would take away all that I desired. What was God?
Maybe the problem was not with God, but with me. Just as the Grinch realized Christmas didn’t come from a store, I came to understand that God was not as simple as I had imagined. Not unlike the Grinch’s undersized heart, my image of God needed to grow three sizes.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:17-19, NRSV)
The psalmist imagined God as a Shepherd whose shining face meant safety to the flock. Whatever happened, whatever the news might be, I could find the strength to face it by keeping my eyes on the Shepherd.
Loving God, we are saved by finding you. Light our way as the days grow shorter. Let your face shine, that we might be saved. Amen.