A sometimes delightful and occasionally cruel feature of Facebook is the “Memories” notifications. They begin, “James, we care about you and the memories you share here…” and they show up when we get on Facebook for the first time on any given day, presenting our thoughts and pictures from years past. (If you find these imposed memories intrusive, or if there are some things from your past you’d just as soon forget, these can be filtered or turned off.)
These last few days, images of Advent Christmas Vespers from years past have been showing up in my feed, triggering lots of nostalgia. As the biggest worship event of the fall semester, it meant we would typically start planning Advent Christmas Vespers in the summer with meetings to determine a theme, readings, music, and visual art. Then the fall semester would be taken up with rehearsals, copy editing, booklet design, and other preparations. Some years elaborate plans for the Chapel’s interior and lighting would consume us. Every year our preparations would reach an almost fever pitch just as we returned from Thanksgiving break and the semester’s end was imposing its own demands on the dozens and dozens of students who were giving of their time and talent to make the services happen.
And then the night would come, candles would be lit and music would begin to fill the Chapel’s glorious space as surely as it filled the hearts of the hundreds who would gather to listen and sing. For many who came annually, it was the start of their Christmas season. They would tell us so as they filed out into the cold night air at the end of it.
These days this year, however, the Chapel lies mostly empty, alone and silent. It’s odd and upsetting.
We long to be in the presence of God whose coming we both celebrate and expect and yet, it seems, we cannot be. We cannot be in the presence of God this year if it was our planning and our work, our designing and our rehearsing, our candles and our soaring song that made God’s presence real for us.
Blessedly, that’s not the case.
While we might have lost sight of this in the glorious moment of vespers past, it was not our singing, nor our art, nor the subtle flicker of a candle in a sublimely beautiful room that brought us into the presence of God. All of those beautiful moments where we gave it everything we had were but our grateful response to God’s generous presence for us.
God promises to meet us in much simpler ways.
Martin Luther wrote about meeting God where God has willed to meet us. One author has described these places of meeting as “God’s trysting places.” There’s a sense of the playful, a sense of romance, in the word “trysting.” These trysting places are those appointed locations where God appears to human beings with both confrontations and offers of grace. There are dozens of these places in the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs: the Oaks of Mamre, the ford of the Jabbok, the Burning Bush are but three – all are places of encounter with the Divine, what Luther called “the Gate of God.”
We might imagine in our sorrow over lost beloved events that the trysting places of our time are candlelit chapels filled with music. Instead, Luther writes, God comes to us in weak and simple ways, using common things: plain clear water, a basket of bread, a cup of middle-priced wine, and simple words – printed on a page, spoken by a friend, mediated by the internet. It is in these trysting places where God meets us with forgiveness and love born out of God’s own suffering that risks undoing everything so that real, tenacious life might rise for us and among us.
We will find our way back to our Chapel of the Resurrection and there we will sing our songs of grateful praise.
In the meantime, I bid you peace, a peace that goes beyond all of our understanding.
Dec. 9, 2020