Friday, December 6, 2019

Do Not Be Afraid

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. In fact, let’s talk about all five of them. If you’ve worshiped at St. Mark during Advent or Christmas the past few years, you have seen them, wondered about them, or perhaps even muttered about them to the person sitting next to you. I’m talking, of course, about our angels- those glowing blue and white forms standing among the organ pipes.

Two years ago we had a local artist and theatre set designer make them for us. The ones we had for ages were falling apart and difficult to repair. Our artist worked closely with a few of us, and we all knew we had stumbled upon a rare opportunity to do something bold and wildly out of step with tradition. We asked ourselves what it would look like if a choir of angels, bursting with light, broke through into our familiar place of worship. Instead of halos and trumpets, there would be abstract shape and light. We replaced something comforting with something jarring.

Blue angels in the St. Mark sanctuary

I’ll be frank. Many of you did not like them. I have heard so many interpretations of what exactly is going on up there with those plastic forms and that eerie blue light. Some have wondered where the angels’ heads have gone. If the color of Advent was red, I expect even more of you would have called them lobster claws. I lost count a while back on how many complaints and questions I have heard. In many of my conversations, I have sounded a bit like the angels in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, looking folks in the eyes and saying, “Do not be afraid!”

You might think I would be upset by the reaction, but that’s the opposite of how I feel. These angels have stirred something in many of us. Their unsettling look has caused us to think more deeply about what this season of Advent is all about. Despite the prevailing depiction of angels in our culture, in the Bible they are anything but comforting. Nobody in all of scripture ever looked at an angel and said, “Oh, that’s lovely. How nice.” They do not have halos, and when the angels blow trumpets in the Revelation to John, there are horrifying results. Angels in the Old Testament can have four faces, or a body covered in eyes, or they might look like an animal-human hybrid. Ezekiel even sees a giant eye-covered wheel in the sky! Their look is never described in the birth narrative of Jesus, but because they have to say those words, “Do not be afraid,” they were probably not very pleasant.

The season of Advent is very similar. Though it has become an extended Christmas season where the radios play cheerful music and color lights up the neighborhood, the readings in our worship can be dire. There is talk of coming judgement from both Jesus and John the Baptist. The increasing light of the Advent wreath fights a losing battle with the decreasing daylight outside. Advent worship can be haunting and mysterious. We know where it leads. We know who will meet us on December 25th. But like many times in our lives, waiting for joy in the midst of darkness can be quite uncomfortable.

Unless you hide in a cave for all of December, it is impossible to completely surround yourself with the sense of Advent which we experience in our worship together. Even then, our own decorations and festivities soften the sharp reality of Advent. It is a complicated church season which is easy to overlook. And so, if these angel figures have given you any sort of pause, or if you have talked about them with others, then in my opinion they have done their job beautifully. They are with us one more season. May they help you consider the hope and mystery of Advent at least once more.

Peace,
Pastor Chad McKenna

Looking Back

Dear St. Mark friends, 2019 is a year I will never forget.   On January 13 of last year, my second granddaughter, Madlyn Olivia Hagen,...