Starry Night:  An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Dec


From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernible as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.  Alfred Delp

Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Anticipation lifts the heart.  Luci Shaw

To be human is nothing less than to be caught in the great congested pilgrimage of existence and to join ourselves freely to it in the face of the evidence of its never-ending troubles. Eugene Kennedy

So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.  Jan L. Richardson

For those of you who have enjoyed or at least endured over a decade of these Advent messages, you recognize my own fixation with the scene of the man (or woman) sitting on top of a large rock beholding a universe that envelops from all directions, casting a light whose origins sometimes well predate human civilization, beseeching Emmanuel to come, to offer us a pathway out of our patterns of violence and pettiness, the “never-ending” troubles of the lives of still-so-many in this world.

To witness the universe in all its wonder and glory, not burdened by artificial illumination or equally artificial optimism, is an experience that we all should have more often.  It is, in its own way, a counterpoint for so much of what our lives have become, especially in this global capital of self-importance in which I continue to reside – the rushing and running, the pushing and fretting, the reduction of life to six inch screens and brown smiley boxes, the almost inconceivable blend of aggressiveness and inattentiveness that makes life here more of a distracted obstacle course than a place where wonder and mystery can inform our multiple movements.

In urban centers like this one there is little sky to behold, few places beyond our ubiquitous electrification to contemplate an inconceivably vast universe both wonderful and seemingly unforgiving, a starry night that promises little aside perhaps for the reminder that we have been – and remain — this remarkable and frequently unimplemented combination of skills and capacities that can probe the mysteries of both the cosmos and our own souls, all while remaining attentive to the increasingly complex logistics and often-daunting caregiving responsibilities of our daily lives.

Much like parents who feed and clothe, toilet train and character-build their children in anticipation of lives that have shed childhood dependencies, we have work to do to ensure that the tasks that consume us now manifest a larger purpose, that they are simultaneously about serving the copious demands and appetites of living and caregiving with the larger purpose of preparing the world for a future that is mysteriously healing, a future with peacefulness at its material core.  But we need reminders to direct our energies in acknowledgment of that belief, that feeling of anticipation which can “lift our hearts,” that sense of liberation from our self-imposed follies which is actually on its way, indeed which is banging on the doors of our hearts this very moment.

I often wonder what the man/woman on the rock did once this encounter with the cosmos was concluded.  Perhaps caring for children or for animals, or tending to the harvest, or repairing a roof that was otherwise unlikely to survive the winter?  Was there a take-away from this sojourn with the stars, perhaps a fear that the cosmos was indifferent to our suffering? Or perhaps a glimmer of hope that something out there was communicating with something “in here,” permitting an anticipation that could “lift the heart,” to return to the more mundane portions of our lives with some sense that all is not lost, that “Emmanuel” will come in some way, in some form, that the moment of healing from our self-inflicted chaos is closer at hand than the stars that signal its coming could ever be.

The gap between the mystery embedded in the cosmos and the relentlessness of our daily responsibilities is often far too vast. But so too is the gap between the immanent promise of a hopeful and abundant horizon and our equally relentless refusal to prepare for its coming.

This anticipation – essential for some, perhaps fantasy for others – is what still energizes the people of Advent to attend to the myriad of tasks and responsibilities that punctuate our existence and sometimes even threaten to drown it.  Our “conveniences” have, if we are truly honest, mostly “upped the ante,” raised our expectations, ossified material habits over which we have mostly lost control.  As we have often noted (following Wendell Berry) that we have become a people who would rather own a neighbor’s farm than have a neighbor; so we would also rather have an I Phone 10 than a close encounter with the mysteries beyond the immediate – including in our own lives — that still, if we dared to believe it, can put our self-referential errands and consumer lusts in their place.

Especially in this season of relentless “giving,” we have so many “bills” that are coming due and that we must attend to in the material world, but also “bills” in our inner lives, the costs accruing from the full-bore substitution of wonder for competition, of mystery for consumption.   Our politics continue to become even more mean-spirited and petty at national and global levels. Our economics, moreover, continue to widen income gaps and seduce purchase-beyond-means.  And at a personal level, we continue on a collective path that almost ensures that our isolated blue ball at the edge of one galaxy will continue to melt away, will continue to groan under the burdens of our willful ignorance and under-modified self-indulgence, affecting the survival of many life forms but mostly of the one that created the melting in the first instance.

But the groaning masks another epiphany, another melody. Something is coming.  It’s just beyond the starry horizon, just about to break through our stubborn self-interest and invite us yet again to a richer and more abundant life.   We have just enough time – but not a minute more – to get ready for the change.  In these times – precarious for some, stressful for many – we can work harder at resisting the urge to pull in the reigns, to disengage, to assuage our discouragement by doubling-down on comfort and self-protection.  We have just enough time to create a better blend of the complex mixture demanded of the times and of this season; a mixture that holds space for the mystery of the qualities we overlook in ourselves and others; a mixture that holds our complex and consuming logistics in a more cosmic and anticipatory frame; a mixture that knows to answer the door when the “peace which passes understanding” deigns to knock.

I who should know better already overlook far too much. It’s time to reacquaint myself with the stars.

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