Advent 1 – A People of Mystery

“What Does it Mean to be a People of Mystery?” Bob Ryder


Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “A voice is crying out In the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John wore clothing made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey for his food. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea and the region along the Jordan were going out to him to be baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

When John saw a crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” for I tell you God is able to take these stones and raise up children of Abraham. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. For even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one far more powerful than I is coming after me; one whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. He has his winnowing-fork in hand. He will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

The End of the World Archibald MacLeish
Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe
And Ralph the Lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb — Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.
And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness, the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing at all.

From The Sacred Depths of Nature – Ursula Goodenough
I’ve had a lot of trouble with the universe. It began soon after I was told about it in physics class. I was perhaps 20, and I went on a camping trip, where I found myself in a sleeping bag looking up into the crisp Colorado night. Before I could look around for Orion and the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror. The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.

  • All the stars that I see are part of but one galaxy.
  • There are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with perhaps 100 billion stars in each one.
  • Each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again.
  • Our Sun, too, will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its own heat-death.

The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. I wept into my pillow, the long, slow tears of adolescent despair. . . A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out in the cosmos. So, I did my best not to think about it.

But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal. I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don’t have to seek a point; in any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery: The Mystery of why there is anything at all rather than nothing, of where the laws of physics came from, of why the universe seems so strange. Mystery. Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category… (I’ve come to see that) mystery can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.

This morning we delve into a new series of Advent reflections with the theme, “What does it mean to be a people of mystery?”  It’s appropriate for the season of Advent, which begins today and dares us to undertake the weeks leading up to Christmas as a time of preparation for something we can’t completely understand or predict, but that redounds to the greater good if we make way for it.  The relationship of the words “advent” and “adventure” is no coincidence.  Part of an adventure is to embrace the possibility of the unexpected, although advent spirituality doesn’t imply the relative safety and recreational nuances we associate with vacations.  Advent implies preparing for something that comes with no guarantee everything will be alright or even comfortable.  Advent would have us acknowledge that human affairs are not as they ought to be – indeed far from it.  We ignore that stubborn fact at our peril.  Advent calls our attention back to it.  Our relationships with one another – and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the natural order – are out of balance, unsustainable.  Therefor we’re called upon to make changes in the way we think and behave, expanding our concern for the well-being of others in ever widening circles of inclusion.  We’re charged with cultivating a morality that honors others – humans and plants and animals and landscapes – for their own intrinsic value rather than for their potential usefulness to us.  In Advent we’re summoned to align ourselves with a sacred mystery that can put things right if we cooperate with it.

There’s something else misunderstood about advent.  The liturgical season is necessarily a short annual occasion on the calendar, but the perspective it would have us cultivate is better thought of as perennial, ongoing.  If we learn anything from advent it is that we haven’t arrived yet.  Humanity as a species, and each of us as individuals still have a long way to go.  Whatever impressive milestones we’ve achieved in knowledge, we’re still far short of wisdom.  We desperately need to acknowledge our self-centeredness.  We desperately need to adjust our thinking and daily habits in support of a greater good that exists as the most fragile of possibilities.  Advent is a season of preparation for an indefinable sacred reality.  It is the time to ask ourselves – it is the habit we must make of asking ourselves – “What does it mean to be a people of mystery?”

When I was younger I’d have found this topic appealing.  Now it strikes me more as compelling, and the difference matters.  Part of what drew me to religion in my adolescence was an exotic sense of mystery.  I couldn’t have acknowledged it then, but becoming religious was a way of borrowing substance that couldn’t be disproven.  Christianity still had a generally good reputation, and Presbyterians were regarded as impressive – or at least they regarded themselves that way.  Associating myself with the exotic aspect of religious mystery was a way of borrowing unearned importance from a source that was immune from scrutiny.  Religion can always be reduced to a means of escape if we let it.  It can tempt us to ignore the tedious responsibilities that come with being alive.  It can reinforce our prejudices.  We can use it as license to think of ourselves as being above worldly concerns and to assume supernatural powers will clean up the daunting messes of human affairs. “What does it mean to be a people of mystery?” To the extent it amounts to delusion and disengagement, the question isn’t worthy of our attention.

Now something different occurs to me when I consider the question.  Now the idea of mystery impresses me less as crutch for the ego and more as a summons to transcend ego and make a choice about important questions that can’t be answered by science.  Let me say that again, the idea of associating with sacred mystery strikes me now as a summons to outgrow our default preoccupation with self-concern and consider questions of truth, justice, and peace.

There was a time not so long ago on the grand scale of history when humanity largely regarded concepts of justice and truth as products of divine revelation. Whether it was written in scripture, uttered by prophets, or embodied by divine incarnation, it was understood one way or another that there is a source from which sacred morality and wisdom is conferred upon humanity.  Before physics brought the nature of the universe into clearer focus, it was easy to assume that the source of morality – however one conceived it – was “out there,” either among or beyond the stars.   Over the past several hundred years, astronomy and physics have made it clear – often in the face of great resistance – that the universe is organized on principles that require no divine administration or enforcement, and it bears no observable evidence of sacred origins or inhabitance.  Likewise, biology and chemistry have made it clear that the shape of our bodies and the very function of our minds are the results of amino-acid based molecules self-replicating over eons.  Through evolution, occasional aberrations in that self-replication process have accumulated resulting in the vast array of living creatures spanning the globe.  Even mental features such as our capacity for moral reasoning can be traced to the structure of our DNA.

This leaves us to ponder difficult questions.  Where do concepts such as justice, right and wrong, altruistic service to family and community come from?  Are they merely products of our evolved imagination?  Does justice actually exist?  By what standard am I obliged to honor your property and possessions?  Does it ultimately matter whether someone does something cruel if nobody finds out?, if they can’t be held accountable to some objective standard?  If the answers to these questions seem obvious, the reasons why remain a mystery.  If I see one people oppressing another, if I see families cruelly separated at the border and children confined in cages, how do I know that’s wrong?  Who says so?  Certainly, the perpetrators will have reasons to justify their behavior; their victims are less than human perhaps, or part of a conspiracy to invade their territory and take their resources.  They were following orders.  Are those claims factual?  Are they valid?  Are there alternate versions of truth that are just as legitimate depending on who says them and who’s invested in the answer?  Is there any substance behind the idea that our behavior should be regulated to facilitate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to love our neighbors as ourselves, that the government shall not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law?”  Or is all that expendable depending on who’s in charge?  If we can’t pinpoint an authoritative source of justice – if it’s just stuff we’re making up as we go – are we free to write it off and do whatever we can and can’t get away with?

Surely that can’t be the case.  Surely there is substance to our aspirations for justice and mercy and inclusivity.  Surely our aspirations to promote peace and dignity in the world have some intrinsic worth beyond being an accidental survival mechanism.  Yet because the ultimate meaning from which morality emanates remains inscrutable, because that to which we give our allegiance can never be named, because its existence can never be proven, people of faith must make a choice to cultivate justice with as much intelligence and courage and integrity and persistence as we can muster.  This is what it means to be a people of mystery.

I’ll close my thoughts with two short quotes before inviting your responses.  The first is from Barack Obama who made this observation during his remarks at the memorial service for representative Elijah Cummings… “I would want my daughters to know how much I love them, but I would also want them to know that being a strong man includes being kind; that there is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.” (Barack Obama, Excerpt of his Eulogy for Congressman Elijah Cummings)

And finally this eloquent thought by Ann Lamont, who writes, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Certainty is missing the point entirely.  Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”