The first time I really got it, I was 16 years old.
I had traveled by myself to visit distant relatives in Paris, with the hope of improving my French. Somehow, a weekend visit to the beach ended up with me on an unaccompanied trip on a train from a lazy seaside town back to the city. “I’m lonely here, God,” I thought. “Would you show me you are with me?”
Looking out the train window, there was a brilliant sunset hanging over the fields of canola flowers. There was my reminder of God’s love! As the train curved away from the sunset and it fell out of view, I sat back in my seat, satisfied with the gift I had been given … only to start up again as the train took a sharp curve to the left, the sunset back in full view.
“Oh,” I thought, “that’s what they mean by love being abundant and our cups overflowing. I get it.”
The first time I really got it, I was 18 years old.
On my first winter break back from college, I was driving in my parents’ car, listening to the radio. On air was a county executive discussing why a curfew might be a good idea for the county’s youth. According to him, instituting the curfew would help police arrest young people they suspected of other crimes. The implication was that it would only be enforced against those people who looked suspicious. Another voice on the show expressed concerns that what this meant was that the curfew would only be enforced against black teenagers.
“Oh,” I thought, “this is what they mean when they say the police target people they instinctively assume to be suspicious, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. I get it.”
The first time I really got it, I was 24 years old.
I was telling a volunteer spiritual director at a festival I was attending about how even after seven years, I couldn’t shake the story of the sunset on the train in France. It felt like a cheesy message, now, especially in the spiritual dry spell I was trying to press through.
She suggested that maybe the story still had something to teach me. She asked me what I appreciated about the festival. I told her the dark sky, a chance to be outside, the stars. “Light seems to be a theme for you,” she said. “What is the night sky?” she asked. I didn’t know. “The night sky is the promise that there will be a sunrise tomorrow.”
“Oh,” I thought. “That is what it means to see hope and life when it is dark. I get it.”
That brings me to now. The news is heavy, and hearts are breaking. The Scripture passage for the first Sunday in Advent, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” hits like a wall of bricks.
Oh that you would. Oh that I knew what would make police officers stop killing unarmed black teenagers. Oh that the country I live in knew how to bring justice. Oh for a sunrise.
But the heavens are dark now, and we just catch glimpses of the light.
A friend in Chicago and I are swapping Advent thoughts, trying to make sense of the weight of our hearts (“I should have known not to read the comments… not even the comments on Sojourners,” she says).
She sends me a poem by Sylvia Plath, but I don’t have the energy to read a poem right now. I send her my pastor’s sermon from church on Sunday instead. “The Holy is at work, in the places that seem to have been abandoned by sun and moon and stars,” my pastor says.
My friend replies, “This fits so well with the Sylvia Plath poem!” So I read it, finally, and I think of my sunset in France:
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles.
The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel.
For that rare, random descent.
Once again, in this Advent season, I get it.
Janelle Tupper is Online Organizing Associate for Sojourners.