Reflections During Advent, Part III
Psalm 126:5. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
John 1:22–23. Then they [the priests and Levite] said to him [John the Baptist], "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those [the other Jews, including the Pharisees] who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He [John] said, I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.
In Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Pádraig Ó Tuama describes a succinct form of prayer known as a “collect” (pronounced COLLect). Collects open with a name for God and a few words that state a characteristic or action of God. They then name a request, or desire, and give a reason for making that request. Usually collects end with thanksgiving or praise and an “Amen.” Here is an example from the Book of Common Prayer, a collect “For Those who Influence Public Opinion”: Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices; Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That’s a formal one, written for corporate use in public Christian worship. Out of my new habit of waking early to write and pray, I have begun writing my own collect nearly every morning—and sometimes in the evening, too. Definitely NOT meant for public worship, my collects often draw from a singular moment of a particular day. For example, early one morning in October, my back was bothering me, so I spent my prayer time lying flat on the floor in a dark room. The window blinds were open, and light from the setting harvest moon shone in my eyes. The bright moon contrasted so much with the dark sky and dark room that it was hard to look directly at it. But it was very beautiful. When I got up to write, I began my collect for that day, “O God of the moon in my eyes….” I doubt those words would have meaning for anyone else, but they capture for me a moment when I could feel the presence of something Holy.
The gospel reading for the Advent III raises questions about identity, relationship, and purpose. In it, figures from the religious establishment are trying to understand the man known today as John the Baptist—an influencer of public opinion. Who are you? they ask. Are you Elijah? Why are you baptizing people? For the gospel writer, however, there is a deeper unspoken question here: Who is John the Baptist in relation to Jesus? That’s not a bad question for each of us to ask of ourselves during Advent: Who am I in relation to Jesus?
There have been times in 2020 when my faith has been shaken. Like the Psalmist, I have cried out to God, “Restore our fortunes”—and have been met with silence. I have wondered who I am to God, and who God is to me. I have felt chastened to realize that it is easy for me to be a woman of faith when the ground beneath my feet is, for the most part, stable. But when everything around me is under threat? That’s hard. The scale and scope of parts of 2020 have challenged both my faith and my image of myself as a woman of faith.
But through the act of writing simple collects, something inside me is shifting. Ó Tuama writes, “To pray is to imagine. And in imagining, we may imagine that we are imagined by something Bigger.” I think he’s right. If your own faith has been shaken in 2020, I invite you to join me this third week in Advent in asking, “Who am I in relation to the Child soon to be born at Bethlehem? Who am I in relation to God’s Word made flesh?” Journal about it if you can. Maybe you also will write a collect or two expressing your current grief or joy, fear or hope, anger or gratitude. Maybe you too will imagine new ways of being a person of faith.