November 22, 2020

Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, I: Friendship

Passage: Luke 1:39–45

"The Gospel Nativity Story"
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Jan Richardson is a Methodist minister, poet, and artist in Florida. The Reverend Richardsons’s husband Garrison Doles died on the second day of Advent in 2013 after what was supposed to be routine surgery. He was 62.

Obviously this sudden grief colored Ms. Richardson’s Advent a deeper shade of purple, almost black, ever after. Preparing to celebrate the Advent season in subsequent years, if ‘celebrate’ is the right word, she began to pay attention to the way the major players in the Gospel Nativity Narratives faced a disorienting experience they were not prepared for either, how they gathered strength for the facing of those unprecedented days.[1]

So during this Extended Advent, Six Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights. The sun rose at 6:50 this morning and will set at 4:24 p.m., giving us exactly 10:44:18 of daylight, and 13:16:42 of darkness. Some people get SAD this time of year—Seasonal Affective Disorder. Most of our lives are darker just now by the recurrence of this stubborn, implacable virus.

Friendship is the first Advent Practice. Once upon a time, a preacher’s wife from the suburbs of Jerusalem learns that she is unexpectedly expecting. Her name is Elizabeth, and she is well into middle age. As the Bible so politely puts it sometimes, “it had ceased to be with her after the way of women.”

Six months later, Elizabeth’s cousin, a peasant girl named Mary from the small Galilean town of Nazareth, learns that she is also unexpectedly expecting. Mary’s pregnancy is just as improbable as Elizabeth’s, more so, because Mary is a virgin, or claims to be.

So here they are, these cousins: Elizabeth is over 50, and Mary is still a teenager, probably not younger than 15 but not older than 19. What do you do to cope with such unexpected news and such a terrifying immediate future? You get some help from a friend.

Mary travels the 100 miles from Nazareth to the suburbs of Jerusalem. It probably took her about four days. Luke does not tell us who escorted her, but surely a teenaged girl would never undertake such a long, dangerous journey without a male escort; maybe her father.

When Mary gets to Elizabeth’s house, the two impossibly pregnant women begin comparing notes on taking good care of yourself, getting enough sleep, eating the right foods, procuring a crib and diapers and baby onesies.

When the days are short and the nights are long, when you feel alone and isolated by unexpected, impossible news or by a ruthless pandemic, when people are whispering cruel rumors about you, find a friend. None of us can flourish during the long nights on our own.

A long time ago I heard a phrase that has stayed with me ever since: The Sacrament of Friendship. Don’t know where I first heard it. Maybe I made it up myself. The Sacrament of Friendship.

The Church often defines a sacrament as a visible sign of an invisible grace, or an earthly appearance of a heavenly benediction. The waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist are visible signs of an invisible grace. Maybe we should think of friendship as a sacrament—it is one of those places in life when God shows up, when divinity is most palpably real to us.

Maybe friendship is such a great gift because in it we experience the benediction of being chosen. From among the world’s untold billions, my friend, wonder of wonders and grace upon grace, chooses precisely me to share his world. It could have been entirely otherwise, because friendship is one of the few truly voluntary relationships in the human world.

We’re stuck with the children our chromosomes unwittingly produce, and unfortunately for some, we can’t choose the parents who chanced to birth us into existence, and our little sister Wendy Whiner will forever remain our irritating kin, and we gotta work where they’ve got a job, but we get to choose our friends, and when we’re chosen the choice feels like an unmerited grace.

Annie Lamott says, “Most humbling of all is to comprehend the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you, and all the experiences you have shared, the journeys together, the collaborations, births and deaths, divorces, rehab, and vacations, the solidarity you have shown one another. Every so often you realize that without all of them, your life would be barren and pathetic. It would be Death of a Salesman, though e-mail and texting.

“The marvel is that somehow you lured them into your web twenty years ago, forty years ago, and they totally stuck with you.... What a great scam, to have gotten people of such extreme quality and loyalty to think you are stuck with them. Oh. My. God. Thank you.”[2] Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

My best friend emailed me the other day. When we were all living in Connecticut, he and his wife and Kathy and I did everything together.

He emailed me to tell me that he’d finally had a chance to read Wallace Stegner’s novel "Crossing to Safety". I’ve been begging him to read it for 20 years, and he finally got around to it. He loved it so much he inhaled it in a single day.

"Crossing to Safety" is about two American couples, four fast friends who meet when they are young and then form a treasured, intimate, lifelong coalition. It might be the best book about friendship that I have ever read. No, that can’t be, can it? There must be greater books about friendship, but I guess I haven’t read them.  "Crossing to Safety": the title is important. Fine friends help each other cross to safety.

At one point the narrator finds himself at an ancient, beat-up summer home where in the distant past the four friends had gathered summer after summer after summer, teaching each other’s children to swim and sail and fish, telling ghost stories around the campfire, reading books on the porch by the light of the moon.

Returning to the old beloved place after a long absence, the narrator says, “And there it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.”[3] “The unfinished pine of the walls and ceilings has mellowed, over the years, to a rich honey color, as if stained by the warmth of the people who built it into a shelter for their friends.”[4]

And then in his email, my friend said Crossing to Safety made him think of their friendship with Kathy and me. And those, of course, were the kindest words I’d heard in a long, long time. My friend is someone who has helped me cross to safety time after time after time.

When Herman Melville finished Moby Dick, perhaps the greatest book ever written by an American, he suspected that it would be condemned by the critics and misunderstood by the reading public.

In fear and trembling, Mr. Melville sent a copy of Moby Dick to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, another of the princes in the American literary pantheon, who, frankly, didn’t much care for it, but understood its utterly new perspective, and gave it at least faint praise.

In a letter to Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Melville wrote, “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb...I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Lord’s Supper, and that we are the pieces.”[5]

I like the way he puts that: in our friendships, God is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and we are the pieces: the sacrament of friendship, a visible sign of an invisible grace.

When the bewildered, frightened, teenaged Mary knocks on Elizabeth’s door, Elizabeth’s face instantly brightens and gladdens.  She says, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. As soon as I heard your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.”

I hope there is someone in your life whose countenance gleams the instant she lays eyes on you. I hope there is someone in your life you can lean on too when the days are short, and the nights are dark.

[1] Jan Richardson, “This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas,” in The Advent Door, December 17, 2015.

[2] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 57–58.

 [3]Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (New York: Wings Books, 1987), p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[5] Herman Melville, in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, November 17, 1851, quoted in The Norton Book of Friendship, eds. Eudora Welty and Ronald Sharp (New York: Norton, 1991), 260–261.