We had a birth and a death within our congregation inside 12 hours of each other Yesterday. Isn’t that just like Advent.
Some are scouring the internet for last minute shopping, drive-thru tacky light shows and tele-conference Carols. Others are saying goodbye to loved ones and wondering if they should even go through the hassle of hanging stockings this year.
All of a sudden I hear the soft pluck of a banjo in the corner of my imagination. No it’s not the kid from deliverance, It’s Sufjan Stevens. An indie folk-pop artist known equally for deceptively simple poetry and multiple instrumentation. We happen to share the exact same birthday 07/01/1975.
As I ponder all this I recall reading something from Ben Myers a few years ago concerning Sufjan’s song Casimir Pulaski Day. It’s fitting for today…for Advent.
The story is plain enough: an adolescent boy loves a girl with cancer; she dies; years later, he finds a card which reminds him of her, and he is again brokenhearted. But throughout the song, there is a peculiar chorus: “All the glory that the Lord has made.” In the first place, it seems strange to speak of God’s glory in a song like this, where God’s own role appears to be a purely passive one. God is distinguished in this story precisely by his absence and inactivity: they pray for healing, but nothing happens; when the girl finally dies, even the cardinal strikes out in confusion and frustration. The God of this song is a God who does not intervene – and yet each moment, each memory, remains charged with God’s glory.
Indeed, as the song progresses we realise that the speaker’s relation to God is marked by a deep ambivalence. What kind of God is this, who lights up even our losses and griefs with beauty? What God is this, who shines on us even in the hour of death, so that our most painful trials are achingly transfigured? When the adolescent boy sees the girl dead, he is struck even then by her beauty, by the light and shade of the scene:
In the morning in the winter shade On the first of March, on the holiday I thought I saw you breathing
And turning from the girl’s face, he looks out the window – only to be confronted by the face of God:
All the glory that the Lord has made And the complications when I see His face In the morning in the window
Here is God’s glory, lighting up the world, transfiguring an ordinary day into a “holiday” (literally “holy day”). Here is God’s glory even in the midst of death and abandonment. It is indeed a “complication.” In this song, God is not the opiate that makes it easier to cope with death and loss. Death becomes more “complicated” when God is there.
But we’d be misunderstanding the song if we imagined it to be depicting some cold, unfeeling deity who stands at an impassive distance from our pain. On the contrary, we are confronted with the true paradox of God in the final verse. God is the one who displayed his glory “when He took our place” in Jesus Christ, entering into our deepest griefs from within. And yet this same God is now encountered as the one who “took my shoulders and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes.” The same God who took our place now takes life away. He is there with us in death, and we encounter his presence both as a weight of “glory” and as an unbearable wound.
This is an extraordinarily vivid depiction of grief and loss and memory. But it’s also – and above all – a remarkably hopeful song, full of light and beauty and the freshness of morning air. If there is confusion here – “the complications you could do without” – then even this confusion itself is finally taken up into the light and shade of God’s overcoming glory. The God encountered in grief and loss is the God who has already gone ahead of us, already taken our place in Jesus Christ. And so this God gathers up all things into glory: even in the hour of death, it is his face that turns towards us in the radiance of glory, and in the beauty of grace.
Blessed Advent. Come Lord Jesus.