14 Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne; *
love and truth go before your face.
15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout! *
they walk, O LORD, in the light of your presence.
Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. Today we light the candle of LOVE.
I feel like pilgrims were slighted this year, because of the way the calendar worked out, the candle of love only gets a few hours of special attention before we light the Christ candle tonight. It doesn’t seem right, it’s the backbone for all the other candles it forms the promise that grants us hope and it enables us to live in peace when the waiting is too long. It’s the strength that brings us joy and leads us to worship in all circumstances. Given that John explains to us that God IS love, glazing over this candle for only a few hours on our way to Bethlehem is a serious tragedy.
In the book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris says on the topic of God’s love, “We praise God not to celebrate our own faith, but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and to let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us into his own.” Before we know this is true, we crave it. We want to be known, loved, and saved. We want to know God is with us, day in, day out, in our messy stables, our smelly fishing boats, and our Zacchaeus trees. We all wrestle to discover if this promise of sacrificial, unshakable love is true, and accepting it is scary. We know the love will save us, but it will also change us. It will prune and refine, and sometimes that will hurt. But the promise is so good, we exalt when we finally accept it.
If we are lucky, there’s a few times in our own lives where we get to share this godly vow of love with other people. Maybe it’s in front of friends and family at a wedding, or through clenched teeth during the labor pains in a delivery room, or while holding the hand of an aging parent. The divine love we give to each other – the one that requires more than we are able to give, that stretches us thin and reveals the weaknesses in our carefully polished exteriors- that love is the glue that holds us together as a civilization. It drives us towards progress, peace treaties, and charity. It keeps us from turning dysfunctional family reunions into the final chapter of Lord of the Flies. It’s the closest thing we have to scientific proof of that God is with us.
These vows are life changing, and we enter into them trembling, with equal parts awe, excitement and terror. I think back to these moments in my own life, and wonder what it was like on the way to Bethlehem. Surely Mary was bursting with it, as Joseph said he would help her raise the baby, and later as the first contractions struck her with the reality of raising a savior. I’m certain that Joseph tried to comfort her in those last moments with his own excitement, but I’m equally sure that his eyes betrayed the overwhelming fear and uncertainty that lingered in his own heart. And what about the other living things of the earth, the ones without consciousness of good and evil, the plants and the animals? Could they sense the anticipation in the heavens that was stirring, ready and waiting for the moment to burst forth and proclaim the glory?
When I was a kid, my family would travel with friends to their cabin in Canada in the summer. Even in August, the air temperature rarely rose above 80, and the water was always frigid. It was a primitive cabin, with no running water or showers, however there was a sauna. For a proper bath the tradition was to sweat off all the nastiness and grime of the day in the sauna, and then run down the dock as fast as you could and jump into the lake. It had to be done this way, because if you stopped to dip a toe into the water, or tried to ease yourself down the ladder, you would not get in. The cold would be too intense and you would lie to yourself, saying you maybe didn’t smell that bad. Maybe that wasn’t really dirt and fish grime on your legs, it was possibly just a nasty, uneven tan. But really if you were to get clean, you must run down the dock and jump, holding the fear and thrill in equal parts to the last airborne second before you submerged. The water was always an intense shock, and it felt like the icy chill sunk deep into your soul as it washed the grime off of every single cell in your body. Everyone that bathed this way would kick back up to the surface and let out the perfect primal scream, so loud that everyone still inside the cabin could hear. It came to be known through the years as “the festal shout.”
Mothers know this festal shout quite deeply during labor. It’s the last cry given, after the crowning, but before the birth. It burns with pain and jubilee, part curse and part exultation. It holds the knowing, but not knowing how the grandness of new life will change you forever. It holds the pain as the great reservoir of love inside you cracks wide open and overflows, but leaves you with an open wound in your heart that will be vulnerable forever. I imagine that Mary was no different from any other mom in this way, that with her final push she cried out too. The difference was that in that moment the whole earth echoed her shout, and continues to do so to this day, because the promise was that unto all of us the child would be born. We share in Mary’s last cry of anguish and elation as we open up the vulnerability of our souls to his love. In our baptism we know it, as we come up shocked and gasping for air, but also crying out hallelujah because we are so loved.
We are the people of the festal shout.
* * *
Today O Lord, despite our trembling, and our reluctance to let You look into the deepest, most brutal parts of our soul, we are happy that we know this shout. We sing, dance and cry with elation that your love saves, changes and creates. Shine Your light on us, we pray, that we may walk in it, and let us join together with all of heaven and creation in the chorus of exultation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”