The Psalms of Advent: Amen

December 16, 2022

“The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms . . . .”  George Santayana

Twenty-one days ago, I began this series on The Psalms of Advent with the above quotation by philosopher Santayana because his words reminded me of the depth and width of the Hebrew psalms that contain all the joy and pathos, the wide kaleidoscope, of human emotions and give them safe space to be heard and received.  Over these past three weeks of Advent, we have been invited to listen to four different psalms, each one selected for worship on one of the four Sundays of the Advent Season.  This series has been a pilgrimage of sorts, seeking guidance, wisdom, hope, illumination, and inspiration from ancient voices singing ancient songs in Psalms 122, 124, 42, and 80.  Yesterday, I reflected on Psalm 80, which will be read in many Christian worship services this Sunday, December 18.  The entire psalm may be found here:  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2080&version=NIV

While the psalms were, in fact, written by Hebrew poets for Hebrew people in historic, personal, and often specific Hebrew circumstances, they still speak to anyone in search of the Holy and who longs for an honest relationship with the Divine.  Often what Christians claim to be prophesies of Jesus Christ in these psalms are in reality prayers for earthly kings and human messiahs.  Yet, as a Christian, I do see the promises of Christ in these songs of and prayers for peace, humility, righteousness, service, sacrifice, salvation, light, and personal and corporate relationship with Yahweh, the great “I AM.”  The shepherd in Psalm 80 resembles the Good Shepherd of the New Testament, the One born of blue-collar parents in a rural town under occupation by Romans, the One who taught that to love is to serve and to serve is to love, the Daystar that never quits shining no matter how dark and bleak the times might be.

So in these final days before Christmas or whatever celebration we await together, we wait and watch and remember and hope and sing and shine and say, “Amen,” which means both “So be it” and “Yes,” yes to all of life because the psalms have taught us that we are not alone in this vast and often lonely cosmos.  Perhaps that assurance is the greatest miracle of all.

Thank you so very much, whoever you are and whatever you profess, for sharing this Advent pilgrimage with me, whether you followed daily or dropped in from time to time.  Thank you to those who let me know you were present; your encouragement and presence blessed me.  I wish each of you and all of us the wonder of the shepherds, the serenity of silent snow, and the glorious joy of the choirs of angels.

Amen and amen~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Thursday, Advent Week 3: Shine

The Psalms of Advent, December 15, 2022

You are invited to light a candle and join me as we reflect upon the final psalm selected for Advent, as designated in the Revised Common Lectionary.  I hope you will sit with this psalm and listen for the word that Spirit is whispering to you. Today’s poem, Psalm 80: 1-7; 17-19, will be used in worship in many Christian churches the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday before the celebration of Christmas Day, so it is appropriate that the word that draws me in is light

Psalm 80: 1-7; 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
(New Revised Standard Version)

The entire psalm is divided into four parts that by now may seem familiar to us:
Verses 1-2 call to God for assistance, with the psalm’s refrain, used three times, found in verse 3.
Verses 4-6 compose an urgent plea as well as a complaint about God’s treatment of the psalmist’s people.
Verses 8-13 (not included here) describe God’s past compassionate care and the present uncomfortable situation.
Verses 14-17 renew the petition and plea with the final verses repeating the refrain: “Restore us, Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

Shine.  Light.  Illuminate.  Beam.  Radiate.  Glow.  Enlighten.  Gleam.  We could string these words together and wind them around a Christmas tree, then bask in their healing power as shadows, fear, confusion, and uncertainty creep away.  The entire Scripture begins with a shining at Creation: “Let there be light.”  A column of fire leads the Hebrews through the dark wilderness to the Promised Land.  Yahweh’s presence shines so brilliantly upon Moses that Moses must wear a veil to protect the people from being blinded by his glowing face.  The psalms themselves call on, seek, and celebrate light while hundreds of years after the last psalm was written, the evangelist John writes of Jesus Christ:  “What had come into the world was the light of ALL people.  The light shines in the darkness . . . “  (1: 4).  A quick Internet check reveals that the word light is used anywhere from 272 times to 433 in the Old and New Testaments.

God, by whatever name we use to entreat, implore, praise, worship, scream at, dance with, weep with, keep vigil with, is Light.  Hannukah, Diwali, Advent, and other light-filled traditions shine with that truth.  We are recipients of Light, called to shine in whatever way, small or great, we can.  My prayer this Advent Season is that we all remember that the “light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5) and that we choose to shine with Love.

Shining with you ~  Rosemary

Candle-Prayer

“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.” ~ Fr. Alfred Delp, martyred in Nazi Germany, age 38

In the small still shadow of a darkened morning
before the screeching of this broken world repeats,
I strike a match and set it to a stub of wick:
an offering of light being birthed yet again.

Before the screeching of this broken world repeats,
I breathe sacred flame-glow into heart, psyche, soul
an offering of light being birthed yet again,
a single, slender candle singing prayer.

I breathe sacred flame-glow into heart, psyche, soul,
imagine the brilliance of a hundred million candles
burning quietly on the edges of every dawn
before the screeching of this broken world repeats.

I strike a match and set it to a stub of wick,
my hope for this wounded world one fluttering flame,
a single, slender candle singing prayer
in the small still shadows of a darkened morning.

© Rosemary McMahan

Wednesday, Advent Week 3: Deep

The Psalms of Advent, December 14, 2022

You are invited to light a candle and join me as we finish sitting with Psalm 42 this morning.  You may find this psalm at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2042&version=NRSVUE.  My favorite verse in all of the psalms is found in this one, where “deep calls to deep” (verse 7).  Within each one of us, at the core of our very being, is a Source that birthed us all, that unites us all, that loves us all.  That core goes by many names including heart, soul, spirit, being.  It is our private sanctuary, our Holy of Holies, where our greatest griefs, our most powerful fears, our most joyful experiences commune with the Holy.  Anything and everything is contained and deemed sacred and worthy here.

In this single psalm, #42, the psalmist experiences the myriad of emotions found throughout the Book of Psalms where deep communes with deep:

Deep desire: “My soul longs for you, O God” (vs.1);
Deep questioning: “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (vs. 2);
Deep grief: “My tears have been my food night and day” (vs. 3);
Deep tension: “Where is your God?” (vs. 3):
Deep memories: “I remember as I pour out my soul” (vs. 4);
Deep joy: “with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving” (vs. 4);
Deep despair: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (vs. 5);
Deep faithful resolve: “Hope in God” (vs.5).

Yes, Psalm 42 underscores the barebone honesty where “deep calls to deep” with the conviction that in doing so, the relational connection between human and Divine never wavers.  There simply is no situation too deep for God’s presence, too barren of hope, which is why this psalmist, in the midst of depression and loss, can proclaim:

“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (vs. 8).

As we leave this psalm of Advent, I wonder what is deep within you?  What is it that you thirst for?  Have you found satisfaction for that thirst?  In what or whom do you place hope when all seems buried in shadows?  How might these ancient words of an ancient psalmist touch you in the place where your deep calls to deep?

Blessings ~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Rosemary McMahan

Monday, Advent Week 3: Thirst

Psalms of Advent, December 12, 2022

You are invited to join me as we listen to Psalm 42, the second to last of the Advent psalms for this season of seeking, waiting, anticipating, and searching for the light that shines in the darkness.  Psalm 42 is familiar to many people because of the memorable imagery of the first verse:  “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, my God.”  The entire psalm may be found here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2042&version=NRSVUE

Have you ever longed for water?  Have you ever been really, physically, thirsty?  A long, hot hike on an August day in the middle of a desert in Utah taught me about thirst and the very real, human desire for water.  Halfway through the hike, under a blazing sun, I had finished my water.  It would take two hours to get back to the car and then to a gas station or café, and I passed no one who might share some water on the way.  When I finally found water, it was with great relief, gratitude, and rejoicing.

Have you ever longed for something else, been really, spiritually, thirsty?   Such is the case for the psalmist here. While he is most likely lamenting exile and the dispersion of his people, the Jews, this poem speaks to any of us in general terms of danger, loneliness, threats, grief, depression, anxiety, trust, and hope.  No matter who we are or what we believe, we have all, at times, been thirsty for an answer, an assurance, a justice, a reckoning, a solution, a Love that is bigger than our situation.

Thirst is not a choice, preference, or whim.  Because we are human, water is a necessity for life.  For this psalmist, so is God.  I go back to Psalm 1 and the image of the tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in due season.  Sometimes we do, indeed, go through parched seasons, but the hope that this psalm places in God is that these times are just that, seasons, and that if we stay grounded in the Divine, in the Mystery, in Love, in Light, we will again yield fruit.  This promise is one I root in my heart.

Blessings ~ Rosemary

Photo credit: Pixabay

Saturday, Advent Week 2: A Poem

December 10, 2022

Please light a candle and join me on this Advent journey and exploration of the Psalms of Advent.  In my last blog, I wondered about the invitation to make praise both a worship and an everyday practice and experience.  This poem is the response to my reflection on that.  Like the psalm we have looked at the last two days, Psalm 146, this, too, is a song of praise.

Sun Poem

Shouldn’t there be a ritual for the rising of the sun
each day
with candles lit and dancing,
hands upheld in welcome,
songs lifted in praise?
Watch how the sky prepares itself
swathed in azure and violet
how the trees await, limbs lifted
naked and unashamed.
The hilltop holds itself steady
as the first sliver of light appears
behind it and fog like the veils of a dancer
cloaks the water’s face
in preparation for welcome.
Shouldn’t there be a ritual for the rising of the sun
each day as it crests the horizon
in full glory, round and fat and fiery
billions of years of hot white light
a miracle
that blazes into our eyes
so that we turn away, as if it were
the face of God?
Now it ignites the fog
shimmering in pink, turns the dew
to flickering light, droplets of water
on trees into iridescent strings
of pearls, calls forth
the redbirds in
scarlet robes to sing
aubades.
Shouldn’t there be a ritual, each day,
for the rising of the sun, for the promise
of new beginnings, for the grace granted
for another chance? Shouldn’t we bow
before it, weep in humble gratitude
tremble at the power that grants
us faithful constancy, for the fact
that what could burn us instead
blesses?

Blessings to you ~ Rosemary

Poem and Photo credit: Rosemary McMahan

Wednesday, Advent Week 2: A Poem

The Psalms of Advent, December 7, 2022

Since yesterday’s post on Psalm 21 and my thoughts on the word “presence” (https://wordpress.com/view/spirit-reflections.org), I’ve had a desire to write a poem about the presence of the Divine as my meditation on this psalm.  I thought of that Presence who revealed Itself in evening walks in gardens, in burning bushes, on the tops of mountains and in mountain caves, in crossing over to new lands, in the middle of a bustling, dirty city at census time, in the temple teaching, in the towns along the lake, in a boat on a stormy night with frightened friends.  But I couldn’t get that particular poem to take shape, so I followed where the words chose to take me, to this Poem of Advent:

Flame

“The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

In the early hour
of a sullen December morning,
leaden sky pressed against
the windows, rain drizzling down
glazed panes,
I light a candle.
Outside, the barren trees
seem wearied
as if they would like
to tuck themselves down
to rest upon the dampened
ground.
I light a candle.
Even the birds
have gone silent,
the clamor of a world
in turmoil too much
weight for their song.
I light a candle.
Has December always been
thus? Wars and rumors of war
traveling on the winter wind?
Justice and mercy crumbling
like mountains sinking
to the frigid sea?
Sly shadows desiring only to smother
the light?
Since the beginning,
has it always been like this–
darkness snaking its way,
measuring its forward motion,
to extinguish whatever shines?

The flame of the candle
burns on
steady and still
casting a single beam
against the spattered
window. I light another
and another
candle, shadows resist
and dissolve. The rain still falls,
the gray face of the sky
still peers through
the windows
yet the light shines on
and the darkness cannot understand,
cannot overcome it.
I open my lips
to whisper a prayer:
May I be the light,
may you be the light,
stemming from the Source
that continues to flame upwards
to sing.

My Advent prayer is that we be the Light-Bearers who carry the presence of the Divine Light into this much troubled and fractured world.  Blessings ~ Rosemary

© Poem and photo credit: Rosemary McMahan

Tuesday, Advent Week 2: Presence

The Psalms of Advent, December 6, 2022

Psalm 21 is abundant with words seeking to be heard and treasured in the heart:  rejoice, joy, desire, request, and love, as just a sampling:

The king rejoices in your strength, LORD.
How great is his joy in the victories you give!
You have granted him his heart’s desire
and have not withheld the request of his lips.
You came to greet him with rich blessings
and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.
He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
length of days, for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Surely you have granted him unending blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD;
through the unfailing love of the Most High
he will not be shaken. . . .
Be exalted in your strength, LORD;
we will sing and praise your might.
(Verses 1-7; 13. New International Version)

The word that beckons most to me, though, as I spend a second day in this Advent psalm’s company, is presence:  “Surely you have granted him (the king) unending blessings/ and made him glad with the joy of your presence.” 

Presence is such a rich word.  In a world where loneliness, isolation, and cut-off abound, presence beckons like a candle flame.  It is a sacred gift we give another, the gift of our attention, our time, our love, our company, our selves.  Sometimes words are not even necessary.  Presence itself says, “You matter to me.”

When I think of the nativity story, I realize the importance and demonstration of presence.  We find Joseph present to Mary, when he could have taken an easier way out.  We find Mary and Elizabeth, amazed pregnant cousins of different generations, present to one another.  We find angels (the highest of the high) present to shepherds (the lowest of the low).  The old prophets, Anna and Simeon, share their presence in humble and faithful anticipation of a promise.  And the child?  He is named Emmanuel, which means presence:  “God WITH us.”  If Jesus offered anything in his ministry, he offered the gift of his presence, particularly to those who mattered to no one else. The season of Advent reminds us that he still does.

So, I reflected on who has been present in my own life when I have been lonely, confused, or bereft.  Who are the people who have simply been with me?  Then I thought about who I have been present to when she or he needed someone, and who, right now in this “happiest time of the year,” would appreciate my presence.   When we are present, we bear the gift of God-Light, the same light God promises and shines on us.

Thank you for offering your gift of presence to me in this blog.  I am so grateful. Blessings ~ Rosemary

Photo credit ~ Rosemary McMahan

Sunday, Advent Week 2

The Psalms of Advent

Over the last few days, we have listened together to Psalm 72, verses 1-7 and 18-19, the Advent psalm appointed for the liturgy of worship for this second Sunday in Advent.  Below are links to two translations (the more formal and poetic New Revised Standard Version and the easier to read Common English Bible) and one paraphrase, written in every day language (The Message).  Denominations across the world who use the Revised Common Lectionary to select their scripture passages will be reciting or hearing this same ancient psalm, written for and about kings who lived long, long ago, yet a psalm that still speaks with relevance to us.

I have shared the words or phrases I have heard.  Today, I take Sabbath to sit with my reflections, while also wondering what you have heard?  What word or phrase has invited you, guided you, spoken to you, or surprised or bothered you?  What might the universal Spirit be saying to you in this season of seeking?  I would be honored to know.

Blessings on your Sabbath ~ Rosemary

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+72&version=CEBhttps://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2072&version=MSG

Saturday,  Advent Week 1: Sacred Reading

The Psalms of Advent, December 2, 2022

You are invited to light a candle and join me on this journey of reflecting on the psalms chosen for the Season of Advent, most recently Psalm 72, found here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2072&version=NRSVUE.  A couple of days ago, I mentioned that I am not a scholar of the psalms.  I simply chose them as something to explore in this season of expectation and waiting.  I appreciated very much what a fellow blogger posted:  “I actually love that you are not a scholar of the Psalms. The vast majority of us are not. Your thoughts and reflections remind me that the Psalms are for me, just ordinary, not scholarly me” (Visit her blog on spirituality:  Living on Life’s Labyrinth).   Yes, the psalms are exactly for “ordinary” us.

The Book of Psalms comes in all shades of color:  the red of anger, the black of despair, the purple of royalty, the blue of joy, the gray of seeking, the gold of thanksgiving.  No emotion is “inappropriate” for this book of holy poetic scripture.  No emotion is too bad to lift before God. Psalms speaks to the totality of human emotions, those we label both good and bad, that make us who we are:  ordinary people.

My approach to these psalms has been to use the ancient spiritual practice of “lectio divina,” which means “sacred reading.”  Instead of reading a piece of text for information, lectio divina (which is NOT bible study) invites us to read it for transformation, which is quite a significant difference.  We don’t rush through it.  Information feeds the head; transformation touches the heart.  The purpose of lectio is to allow time for a word or phrase to catch our attention or touch a deep part of us and so become a guide and/or an invitation as we walk our journeys. Lectio is similar to hearing that still, small voice of God, Being, Universe whisper personally to us.

So, I do not attempt to explain what the psalms are about or figure out who wrote them.  I do not research much, if anything, about each individual psalm other than what the footnotes may offer me.  What I do, instead, is to respect each psalm as the ancient piece of wisdom literature that it is.  I listen to the voice of the writer for the ancient, and yet still universal, wisdom that is shared.  I read slowly, paying attention to each word until a word or phrase tugs me back, invites me in.  Then, I meditate on it, trying (not always succeeding) to open my heart to the Light and to Love and to what the Spirit may be saying or how the Spirit may be nudging.

All of this is to say that what I hear, you may not hear. (Please see my last couple of posts as examples.)  How I interpret the message may be completely different from your interpretation.  I am neither right nor wrong, and neither are you.  My hope is that when I share my ponderings, I do so universally, in a way that speaks to ordinary people, like me, no matter who they are, who they worship, or where they are on their spiritual journeys.  In this season where so many spiritual traditions are seeking the Light, I pray that these psalms are flickers along the way.

Blessings ~ Rosemary

How the Psalms Came to Be

Imagine dozens, hundreds,
thousands, no, millions of people
all people
different people
ordinary people
standing under the sky
cobalt and immense above
them.
In their hands,
all their hands,
see birds of color:
the hot red of fiery anger
the still blue of deep joy.
the heavy black of aching grief
the harvest gold of sincere gratitude
the pale sage of silent solitude
the ash gray of ceaseless longing.
Myriads and multitudes
of colored birds
are tethered to wrists,
birds nodding, fluttering
sleeping, restless
contained, straining
when a whisper
of Spirit, a word on a wind,
invites release
and the hundreds
and thousands and millions
of tethered birds, (mine, too,
and yours)
are cut loose to fling their colors
up into the open and immense sky
writing a rainbow above the people
while a voice blesses from the heavens,
“I receive it all.”

(c) Rosemary McMahan

Picture credit: Rosemary McMahan

Friday, Advent Week 1: “Like Rain”

The Psalms of Advent, December 2, 2022

You are invited light a candle and join me as we continue our journey with Psalm 72.

“We become like the God we adore.”  So writes priest, psychologist, and author Dennis Linn in his book, Good Goats:  Healing Our Image of God. *  As he further explains, if the God we worship and adore is an angry, wrathful, punitive, fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping Being who keeps a list of who’s naughty and nice with plenty of coal to spare, then more than likely we ourselves will tend to be angry, wrathful, and punitive people who live from a source of fear and retribution.  If, on the other hand, the God we worship and adore is patient, merciful, slow to anger, forgiving, compassionate, and loving, then more than likely we ourselves will tend to be kinder people who live from a source of grace.  Linn’s theory makes complete sense to me as my own image of God has been re-imagined over the course of my life.

Borrowing from Linn, we also, I believe, become like the other gods we follow and support.  In the Elizabethan era, a popular concept existed called “The Great Chain of Being.”  According to this concept, there was a designated place-in-line, or “pecking order,” for every creature, from heaven to earth.  The Christian God, of course, was at the top.  Different levels of angels were stacked beneath him, and immediately following the angels came Man, with the monarch, who was thought to be God’s representative on earth, at the top of the human chain.  (The lowest creature on the chain was the oyster, but that’s a story or poem for another day.)  Part of the concept included a “trickle down” kind of theory:  when a good king, a just and righteous king, sat on the throne, all the kingdom beneath him on the chain would benefit through prosperity and peace.  When a bad king sat on the throne, all the kingdom beneath him on the chain would be injured, if not destroyed, by strife and turmoil.  From the early history of biblical Judaism, with its own good and bad kings, to today, we see the truth in this concept.  Good kings rain down benefits; bad kings rain down disaster.

Most of us do not bow down to kings these days; instead, we choose the political leaders that we follow and that we support with our money, allegiance, and vote.  It is clear in this Advent psalm 72 that this author desires a good king:

May (the king) live while the sun endures
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
(Verse 5-7, New Revised Standard Version)

“Like rain” stands out for me.  This prayer is a petition that this new king will not act like a god, but who, instead, will act “godly.”  As the king does so, as the king attempts to bring God’s kingdom into reality, his righteousness and justice will “water” everyone and everything under him.  New life, fresh beginnings, and abundant growth will occur.  The poor and sick will be cared for, the marginalized included.  Consider such a leader, one who cares more about his/her people than about himself/herself.  Consider such a leader, one who believes that being in right relationship with the Creator, and co-creating with such a Creator, will bring peace that abounds “until the moon is no more.”  Consider that kind of reign/rain.  It calls for an action not just on the king’s part, but on our part, as well.

When we really examine the other gods we follow, whether they are politicians or pundits or newscasters or friends who comment on social media, what do we notice?  Are they speaking, or acting, as instruments of peace?  Of unity?  Of the common good?  For those of us who are Christian, do they uphold what we know to be Gospel values?  Do those we choose as our leaders demonstrate an allegiance to a God of love, to the Prince of Peace, or to something else?   What kind of “rain,” exactly, are they showering us with?  We are responsible for the outcome.  This poem of Advent suggests that we would be wise to sit up and pay attention.

Blessings ~ Rosemary

*Linn, Dennis.  Good Goats:  Healing Our Image of God.  Paulist Press, 1994, pg. 7.

Photo credit:  Pixabay