Thursday, December 4, 2008

Advent in the monastery

On Saturday night we had the blessing of the Advent wreath in chapel. This is our entry into the Advent season here at the monastery. Every year we cut boughs from evergreens in our woods and spend the Saturday morning before the first Sunday of Advent putting them on the Advent wreath frame. The frame is about 3-4 feet round and has four ropes tied to it. The ropes are then suspended from the attic ceiling so that the Advent wreath is suspended over the lectern in the choir section of chapel.

On Saturday evening, the Vigil of the First Sunday of Advent, we gather in the chapel and the lights are dimmed. Three Advent candles are arranged underneath the wreath. Everyone enters in silence. We sit in the dark and wait. After the clock chimes a sister comes in from the back of chapel carrying a lighted candle which she places with the other three, under the wreath. Then everyone stands, still in the dark, and we sing “Holy Darkness.” “Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight, as we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” A cantor then sings a verse of the song while everyone continues to stand.
After the lights came on Sr. Clarissa, our prioress, proclaims a reading from Isaiah. Next, she blesses the wreath by sprinkling it with holy water. Then incense is brought in and she incenses the wreath. After this the prayer for Saturday evening continues as usual.

In this brief ceremony we act out many of the meanings of Advent. We begin with darkness and waiting. We sit, waiting quietly in the stillness, listening with expectation to what will happen next. This is the essence of Advent. The readings speak of the unexpected and surprising coming of God in our lives. They tell us to be awake, alert. We gather in the darkness not as if we know what is going to happen, but with expectancy. Where will God come in our lives? Are we prepared? Are we listening? God will call us to conversion, to transformation. Will we be ready?

In the midst of this darkness a light shines. A candle is lit and we are reminded that God indeed comes in our darkness. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5) We re-enact this ritual regularly because we need to remind ourselves that God did not come once and for all but God is always coming into our lives, God is always piercing our darkness and reminding us of the divine presence.

This is what sing in the song “Holy Darkness.” We remind ourselves that although we may feel that we are engulfed in darkness, the darkness is our lack of understanding, our inability to see in the dark. If we are patient, acknowledge that we don’t know or understand God’s actions, if we embrace the silence in patient waiting then the darkness will be transformed.

In the Advent wreath we see a sign of this transformation. The evergreens are a symbol of life, staying green when the other trees have lost their leaves in the midst of winter. When winter seems to look like death we bring in these boughs that remind us of life that will come out of what appears to be death. In the circular shape we see infinity. There is no beginning or ending to the circle, it is the shape of eternal life, the destination of our journey on earth, to come to dwell with our God who has no beginning or ending.

With the incense we are reminded of the “sweet smelling sacrifices” of the Hebrew Bible. Our sacrifice is prayer and praise as we give thanks to God and lift up our hopes and longing for the coming of Christ in our midst. The rising of the incense represents our prayers rising up to God.

And so each night we begin in silence, waiting and darkness. We wait for the light, for the Word of God to come in our hearts and lives, we wait for the promise of eternal life. As reflect in silence we wait patiently and create room for Christ to be born in our hearts that he may be born in our world.

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