I have told the story of my first Advent experience so many times that it has gained mythic proportions—in my own mind at least. The dates have been changed (but only slightly!), and other events from that first crucial year of my conversion have been moved into the four weeks before Christmas—because that way the story works better, it has unity, it is true in a sense that supersedes the merely factual.
So here we are again, Advent 2004, eight years after that turning point in my life when Victoria and I first came to St. Christopher’s in November of 1996. I can remember all the details. Carol Farnham was pregnant with Carrie-Lee, and Worth used her expectation in his sermons as symbolic of the season. We sang the haunting carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Despite the resistance that had carried me through 23 years of apostasy, I found that the messages and the carols of Advent were entering my life in ways I never imagined possible. I ended the season with a Christmas card to Worth, hand-addressed in calligraphy, in which I wrote that I had truly had an Advent experience as I observed the coming of Jesus into my own life.
As a result of the serendipitous congruence of these two Advents—of the church year and of my new life in Christ—this first season of the liturgical year has become intensely important to the cycle of my own seasons of worship. Perhaps I simply become more aware of the things God is trying to tell me as I remember that first season of openness to his message.
Thus, Advent has become for me a time of new understanding and new dedication. This year’s understanding has come through the praise music we sing. I can remember that when I first started buying Christian CDs (usually because Rick Scarpitti had played songs from them during morning prayer), a certain theme in many of the songs caused me a little consternation. One line that especially disturbed me was “Light the fire again.” But there were many: “Change my heart, O God.” “Renew and change my heart; I don’t want to stay the same.” “Bring me back to you.” Although I never mentioned my misgivings to anyone, I usually skipped forward to the next track as I pondered the message of these words. Why, I wondered, were all these singers asking to be brought BACK to God, to have their fires REkindled? Surely those who could write and sing those magnificent love songs to God didn’t need to be changed or renewed, brought back to God, have their fires rekindled. They were already his messengers, bringing ME closer to him.
I hadn’t thought of those early musings for a long time. Then, just recently, Victoria and I were listening to one of her CDs on the way to church: “Draw me close to you; never let me go. I lay it all down again to say that I’m your friend. . . . Help me find the way; bring me back to you.”
Bring me back to you. This plaintive cry, I now realize, is the cry of Advent. When we first hear that still, small voice of Jesus calling to us, we say yes to him. We experience those places we call “mountaintops” because there we have felt most surely the lofty heights of God’s presence. We know the peace of forgiveness, the joy of servanthood, the serenity of answered prayer. We keep saying yes and yes and yes, our joy deepens, and we are secure in our walk with the Lord.
Then we say no. We experience pain, sickness, loss. We stop praising God because we don’t feel we have anything to praise him for. We turn away from him and others and into our own moods. We stop praying because we are having with Melville’s Ishmael a “damp, drizzly November of the soul.” We see only darkness because we are looking only into the dark. And then, desperate, we cry out. “Help me find the way. Bring me back to you.”
This is truly the cry and the promise of Advent. In ritual and symbol, in sermons and hymns, we remember the miracle in Bethlehem and await the glorious coming in the clouds. Bur we do this same thing every year, and the repetition, too, is symbolic. We have our own epiphanies, we have our own Gethsemanes, and we have our own Advents as well—as many as we need. We turn away from the dark and into the light, we open our hearts and our minds and our souls to the presence of the Lord, and we say, “Come Lord Jesus. Help me find the way. Bring me back to you.”
May we all know this miraculous blessing of Advent.
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