Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. Even those who live for many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. (Ecclesiastes 11:7)
I realize I am better at feeling Advent in darkening days. It is easier for me to meditate on the Light of the world dispelling darkness when it’s literally dark than when it’s bright and sunny and warm and the world is buzzing and brimming and barking with life. Looking up from the dishes I wash at the sink to watch monkeys eat the ripening oranges on the tree in our garden is too jolly for the Advents I’m used to. When the pudgy little dog spies them and gets airborne barking at them, my mind does not go to the minor keys, haunting melodies, or northern hemisphere orientation of some Advent hymns:
Signs of ending all around us, dark and death and winter days, shroud our lives with fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise (from Wonder Love and Praise, Hymn 721).
If the little dog looked more fierce, less bouncy, maybe the monkeys would fear “signs of ending all around us.” Their mouths are numbed, but that’s because they are stuffed full of orange. It looks more like praise than sadness to me.
I realize I am too dependent on exterior clues to aid my Advent interior meditations. I want to be quiet, centered, and honest about the darkness inside me and in the world around me (metaphorically, at least), something that will bring me closer to the mood of this line from the hymn:
Take our fears then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew: Fading light and dying season sing their glorias to you.
I see the oranges and think about the paper bags prepared by good Lutheran ladies in my childhood. The bags contained hard candies, chocolates (in luckier years), and an orange, and were handed by an usher to each child who participated in the Christmas pageant as we left the church on Christmas Eve. Still pretty jolly. I find it’s hard for me to associate oranges with anything but joy. And why would I turn away from the chance to give praise for an orange, whether it’s in my mouth or a monkey’s? Not to give thanks for this simple pleasure would seem wrong. Another quote from Ecclesiastes comes to mind:
Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9).
I think of this passage because of a wonderful essay, “Mundane Wonder,” by William P. Brown, in his book Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Eerdmans, 2015). In it, Brown reflects on the witness of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. (If you’re not familiar, it’s the book that contains, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die . . . ” and “there is nothing new under the sun.”)
But it is Brown’s reflection on the passage about rejoicing, cheering, following the inclination of one’s heart and the desires of one’s eyes, that especially grabs my attention. He says that the author of Ecclesiastes (called “Qoheleth” in Hebrew) is describing
. . . enjoyment as both a divine gift and a human duty. On the one hand, it is God’s gift to human beings, whose lives are brief and whose ignorance of the future is pervasive. Enjoyment, Qoheleth observes, has a mysteriously incidental quality to it. It is not an object of striving. Thus, when and to whom the refreshing breezes of delight blow, no human being can determine; all the more reason to relish enjoyment when it is received. On the other hand, enjoyment is also a matter of duty. Qoheleth’s last two commendations are, in fact, commands. In the final one, the sage counsels a young man to fulfill his deepest desire with the warning that God will bring him into judgment for failing to do so (11:9)! Yes, Qoheleth’s warning about divine judgment is not to repress the young man but to release and encourage him to find suitable objects of desire. It is a “kick-in-the pants” kind of warning, not a cower-in-fear kind of judgment. Divine judgment is intended to reinforce the exhortation to “follow the ways of your heart,” not to impede it. (Brown, 88)
Did you catch that? The sage counsels a young man to fulfill his deepest desire with the warning that God will bring him into judgment for failing to do so!
Here’s the “kick-in-the-pants” Advent warning I needed: light or dark, short days or long ones, be open to whatever enjoyment God is putting before me. Yes, find “suitable objects of desire,” train my heart to seek holy things, and don’t be anxious that I’m getting it wrong if I’m laughing because my eyes have fastened on monkeys eating oranges in the sunshine and dogs bounding and leaping and, I’m sure, wishing they could climb trees.
The monkeys make their get away, the dog gives in to gravity, and I go back to the dishes.
A good meal, table fellowship, a marital moment, meaningful work–all are ‘mundane wonders,’ wonders that lack the sense of the sensational but are just as fulfilling and uplifting as any wonder could be, the kind of wonder that brings a tear of joy or a simple smile, even if it doesn’t quite take your breath away. To welcome mundane wonder also counters a world that is hell-bent on striving for gain ad infinitum, a world obsessed with the sensational and the self-enriching. (88)
. . . It is the ecstasy of simplicity that Qoheleth has found. But what Qoheleth may not have fully realized is that to welcome such joy and to savor it, to cultivate and embody it, can indeed change the world. And that would be something new under the sun. (89)
Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent to you. If “refreshing breezes of delight” blow in your direction, may you be open, aware, and awake enough to rejoice in them, wherever you are in the world.