…of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

This season of Advent just seems to do a number on me.

Yes, there is the absurd rush, the frenzy to not miss a single party or sale or movie opening.  But there is also, from time to time, a sense of the surreal that breaks through.

Christmas Tree lights2
Christmas trees in the dark: Yearning for something, not knowing what it is, only that it is.

It’s another kind of absurd altogether — a fuller sense of the “absurd” reality that we Christians profess.  We are reminded this time of year more than any other that our God, the “one God, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” chose to appear to Creation in the form of an utterly helpless infant, born to a young unwed girl under desperate conditions.

Maybe I just manage to keep this absurdity at bay better during other seasons, more easily brushing off the sheer wonder and profound beauty of a single human breath.  Not so much during the longer, colder nights of Advent.

When I refer to the long, cold nights of this season, it has little to do with shorter hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere.  For me, these “long and cold nights” are more of a spiritual description than thermal — the darker, longer, colder nights of the soul.  Watching lights on a Christmas tree in the quiet dark lead to a deep stirring within.  My truest heart desires something intensely, to know something and to know it deeply.  And yet, that heart is not really sure what it is yearning, sure only in the deepest feeling that whatever it is, Whoever it is, it IS.

Most times when I am asked by the Celebrant to “stand and profess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed,” I begin to mindlessly recite the words, and just gloss over the opening sentence, and its enormously powerful last phrase. But it is this darkness of Advent that reminds me more clearly that God is the maker of “the seen and the unseen.” God has made not just the stars in the heavens and the hairs on my head — not just what can be seen through telescopes and microscopes — but the Unseen, too.  We are surrounded by a holy host of maybes, which (or who) somehow swirl around us at the most needful of times, like a snowfall at night, unseen until one awakes in the morning, and  realizes what has been going on while we slept.

This time of year leads me to understand more clearly that part of our human nature is to seek and yearn for the unknown.  And it leads me to believe more and more that this very human trait exists because we have been “created” to seek and yearn for a Creator. We are meant to bathe in that Mystery. And perhaps, such a Divine (?) purpose goes even further. Part of my “rent” for occupying space on this planet is to purposefully search for that Mystery not only in what is “seen” around me in this universe, but also in the “unseen,” in those closest to me, and ultimately in myself.

And I as engage in that exploration, I am bound to be in that state perpetually.  I am like Bono singing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” and I’m beginning to understand I never really will. Advent is telling me that the finding comes most often in the searching itself. The “answer” is not discovered by “arriving” at a destination but in the journey along the way.

And the deepest of such yearning is to know and feel Emmanuel. God with us.

God– the of the omnipotent loving Creator
With– not over us or far away, but closer than close, touching us and everything in our existence
Us – in this tiny speck of dust that is our little corner of galaxy in the universe.

I become like the author of Psalm 8 when confronting such things. Such knowledge is too good for me; I cannot attain it.

I can only yearn for it.

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding…

This has been the tried and true standard “go to” benediction of choice for generations. And for good reason. It is, after all, awfully hard to do better than Paul himself at his best.

This familiar phrase comes from the fourth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians.  I have always found it somewhat odd that the writings of Paul seem to be at their most passionate, their most poignant, their most hopeful, when his situation seemed the most hopeless. At the time he wrote this affectionate “love letter” to the fledgling church in Philippi, Paul was in a Roman prison, an enemy of the most powerful government the earth had ever known. There was no earthly reason to be of good cheer. No earthly reason.

But as bound and broken and confined as Paul’s body might have been, his spirit was wonderfully and wondrously free. He gives to his friends in that small town on the east coast of Greece the rather silly advice to “Have no anxiety, about anything…” (Phil. 4:6.) Rather, he urges them to try a different approach, to simply pray about “everything,” and to “let your requests be known to God.”

If if they could but do that, says Paul, to honestly, fervently, deeply pray to our Loving Creator about their anxieties (and I can only imagine what all they had to be anxious about!) Paul promised them that a marvelous thing would happen:

And the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Centuries later, this “marvelous thing” has comforted and strengthened and sustained generations, and his words have become the fondest of parting wishes at countless worship services.

Two stories. Both true…

When I was three, my older brother died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 10. I remember Tommy a little, but not much. Blessfully (I think), I don’t remember anything about his death.

Decades later, after we had moved her into assisted living, my mom and I were having a very rare conversation with about Tommy’s death. I shared with her that I had long wondered how she even functioned after losing her first-born. How did she and my dad go on, not just to survive after Tommy’s sudden death, but to raise that beautiful boy’s younger sister, younger brother (me), and two more sisters yet to be born?

“How did you do it, Mom?” I asked her. “I don’t know, Michel,” she told me, “I really don’t… What I remember is this phrase kept coming back to me. Over and over, I kept hearing the phrase, ‘The Peace of God that passes all understanding…’  PEACE. God’s peace. Beyond understanding. Over and over…”. She looked off in the distance for a second.

And then she looked right at me, and I never will forget what she said. “And I wrapped that phrase around me like a cloak!”

Somehow, some way, it got her through.

My Dad's notes in Philippians.
My Dad’s notes in Philippians

Second story. I’ve written in this blog before about the day my Dad died. The part I left out occurred the next day, when the Rector of my parents’ parish was scheduled to come by to talk about Dad’s funeral, and the scripture and hymns we might select. As it so happened, I had read that “Peace of God” passage from Philippians just a few weeks earlier as a lector at my home church, and had heard Buechner lecture on it the previous year,.  I thought maybe my dad might approve, so I ventured back to my folks’ bedroom and eventually found my Dad’s Bible. (Folks that knew him well would not be surprised to learn it was rather dusty.) I flipped my way back to the fourth chapter of Philippians.

Thinking that my dad might approve of this passageAnd there — circled and underscored, with arrows and squiggly lines for emphasis — was that very passage I was seeking.  In my dad’s very distinctive handwriting, he had penned the entire four verses on the opposite page.

I’m not sure such things pass all human understanding. I’m damn sure that it passes mine.