The following sermon was preached for the annual Christmas chapel service for staff at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) at the end of the fall semester.
I grew up singing in choirs: church choirs, school choruses, auditioned choral ensembles, all of which prepared me for a robust para-curricular career in karaoke throughout my twenties and into my thirties. My first voice instructor was my father, a Lutheran church musician. I remember the breathing exercises he would have us do at the beginning of each choir rehearsal.
“Breathe in on four: one, two, three, four and hold it. Good. Now breathe out for four on a “shhh”: one, two, three, four. Good.”
Good singing requires good breathing. Powerful speech requires deep lungs. All our words, spoken or sung, take place as we exhale. We cannot speak as we inhale. Try it, you’ll see. The best I’ve been able to manage is a kind of soft, percussive whisper.
No one spends much time arguing for inhaling over exhaling, or tries to make the case that each act of speech or song is a triumph of exhaling over inhaling. We understand them as parts of a whole, paired movements that mirror other cycles observed throughout creation, the movement of the tide in and out from the shore, the turning from dark to light as night becomes day, the heating and cooling that accompanies the changing seasons, even living and dying. This is all part of creation.
Though I suppose we do start to form associations with each of these movements in the various cycles. We wait for newborns to take their first independent breath, to inhale, as a sign of life. We watch our loved ones breath their last, always an exhale, as a sign of death. We hear noises or have dreams that scare us in the darkness of the night. We turn on the lights to reestablish a sense of control as we wait for the dawn of a new day. Our internal emotional state can be a swirling mass of undifferentiated fears and anxieties. We speak and those thoughts and feelings are woven into a story, a narrative, that helps us make sense of the world around us and within us.
Breathe with me, will you? As we breathe in, let the air touch all those places inside you that this year has made raw. All the losses. The farewells left unsaid. The celebrations deferred. The constant loneliness. The inescapable room. The daily headlines. The violence. The negligence. The manipulation. The horror. The holy dead. Take it in as you inhale, each breath equalizing the pressure inside of you with the weight of the world outside of you.
Breathe in for four and hold it, now breathe out for four on “shh”: one, two, three, four.
Yesterday was the commemoration day for Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, who later came to be known as Juan de la Cruz or John of the Cross. Born in Spain in 1542, Juan became a Catholic priest and is remembered as a mystic. He was mentored by Teresa of Ávila and supported her leadership of the Carmelite order, establishing a number of convents and monasteries at her direction. His poetry and his mystical writings are regarded as “summit of mystical Spanish literature” and when, over a century after his death, he was canonized and named a Doctor of the Church he came to be known as the “Mystical Doctor.” It is from Juan de la Cruz that we get the saying “the dark night of the soul,” which is the title of one of his most famous poems. In it he explores darkness as the place of growth, sometimes painful but always necessary for the soul to mature.
In her book “The Monk Within: Embracing a Sacred Way of Life,” Beverly Lanzetta explores the theme of darkness as the pathway to greater union with God, a pregnant place from which one “gives birth” to the Divine in the world. She names this a “theology of gestation,” writing:
“From darkness and uncertainty, it waits for the Divine to be born in its own time. The process doesn’t try to contain new revelation in the dry, crusty soil of old forms, but germinates each seed in the moist openness of heart, fertile and hollow like the womb, receptive and waiting. It is the qualities of Wisdom, the Mother of all—merciful, gentle, humble, nondual, holistic, benevolent—that we tenderly bear. Verdant, womb-like theology welcomes new seeds to take root. Round and hollow in imitation of divine fecundity, gestation cannot be forced; new life cannot be prescribed. We cannot change the color of the eyes, or the shape of the nose. Similarly, we cannot fashion divine self-disclosure to our own liking. Impregnated with its seed, we simply support it and watch it grow.”Beverly Lanzetta, from “The Monk Within: Embracing a Sacred Way of Life”
The “path of darkness” or “theology of gestation” described by Juan de la Cruz and Beverly Lanzetta belong to a tradition within Christian theology known as the via negativa, also known as apophatic theology or negative theology — not because it is “negative” in its world view, as in skeptical or mistrusting, but because it focuses on what cannot be said about God, or on emphasizing the unspeakable, unknowable aspects of God’s transcendence. This is in contrast to another tradition, a more familiar tradition to many of us (even if the name is unfamiliar) of kataphatic or positive theology. Again, the use of “positive” here doesn’t refer to a cheerful or optimistic quality to this form of theology, but to its focus on what can be said about God, emphasizing the approachable and knowable aspects of God’s immanence or presence with and among us. For this reason, this positive or kataphatic tradition is sometimes called “the way of speech.”
Whew — that got heady! All those words, all that exhaling. Time for another breath, a deep one. I want to keep all the words connected to those raw places in the body. I want to honor both ways of knowing, the truth I feel in my heart and my bones and the truth I speak with my mind and my mouth. The truth that is being gestated in dark and quiet places within me and the truth that is being manifested outside of me under the bright light of the sun. Light and darkness.
What then shall we say about the opening verses of the gospel of John?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word,] and without [the Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”John 1:1-15
It is the gospel reading assigned for Christmas Day every year, which is partly why we’re reflecting on it this morning, as we celebrate Christmas together as a staff even as we remain in the season of Advent, the season of waiting, both literally (as Christmas is still ten days away, thank you very much) and figuratively (hasn’t this whole year felt like a never-ending Advent, a season of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for God to come and save us?).
Is it cheating in the context of a sermon, so often an obvious exercise in “the way of speech,” to say less? Have I already blown my chance at that by saying so much? I don’t know. Probably. But I also know that these verses don’t feel like a gift to me if I have to receive them as assurances that, in the end, light will triumph over darkness and speech will conquer silence. Not this year. Not again. I don’t know if we can take it much longer, these dualisms, the polarization, the relentless antagonism.
This year I have needed to be silent, to inhale great drafts of space, to become reacquainted with myself in ways that only silence allows; and I have needed to speak, to register my complaint, to protest the obscene desecrations of life taking place in our homes, on our streets, and across the nations. This year something grew inside the darkness of my home, the stillness of the park across the street, in the gaps on my calendar that used to be so full with activities and events. It was painful, the way I imagine it is painful to have your internal organs shifted out of the way to make room for the infant that also grows in the dark. It has brought focus and fortitude and clarity about my willingness to fight for the people I love. But this gestation cannot last forever. I have been stretched and expanded, but soon I will want to use these arms and legs of mine out in the world, and become myself again.
It is Advent and it is Christmas, today and every day. It is breathing in and breathing out. The mystery of the transcendent God and the presence of Immanuel, God with us. It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, and the proclamation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. It is life, on the inhale, in the baby born in Jerusalem; and it is death, on the exhale, at the cross beside us all. It is the unspeakable hurt and unbearable harm that must be spoken and borne. It is creation, all of it, all of us, together in God.
Breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out. Good.