Text: Luke 1:5-25 (the miraculous conception of John the Baptist)
What does the biblical expression “Here I am” signify? Several key figures in the Hebrew Scriptures repeat it. Abraham says “Here I am” in Genesis when YHWH orders him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Jacob says “Here I am” when an angel calls to him in a dream. Moses says “Here I am” in Exodus when YHWH calls to him from a burning bush. Young Samuel says “Here I am” each time YHWH calls to him in the night. King David says “Here I am” in Psalm 40.
“Hineni,” the Hebrew word from the quote printed in today’s service bulletin, means “Here I am. ” The quote is taken from the song “You Want it Darker” by Leonard Cohen. Cohen, who died on November 7 at age 82, released this song just last month. In the refrain, he sings “Hineni, Hineni / I’m ready, my Lord.”
I used to think the phrase “Here I am” meant a willingness to do God’s work. This is the sense I get from the hymn “I the Lord of Sea and Sky,” which we will sing at the end of this service. It suggests that the singer holds God’s light and speaks God’s word to the people.
But in Cohen’s song, “Here I am” seems to imply a simple acceptance of one’s situation. When Cohen was writing the song, this would have been the acceptance of his own impending death. For Cohen, “Here I am” is not about doing something as much as it is about being open to the moment.
For me, this type of acceptance is a model for Advent Hope. When we are young, we hope that our wishes will come true. We hope for good weather or for a popular gift at Christmas. But this kind of hope — as inevitable as it is when we are children — can get in the way of joy instead of opening us up to it.
The poet T.S. Eliot portrays this idea in his 1930 poem “Ash Wednesday.” In it, he continually repeats the phrase, “Because I do not hope” before finally revealing that this lack of hope has opened him up to joy. Eliot writes:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place . . .
I rejoice that things are as they are
On this Grey Cup Sunday, I use football to illustrate. Many of us venerate our football team. We might hope that our team wins every game, or at least that it wins every Grey Cup. But not only is this a hope guaranteed to be dashed. Even if it came true, the constant winning might become boring.
It is better, I believe, to enjoy the balance of disappointment and gratification that is the reality of football. The drama of the game always involves missteps as well as brilliant plays and losses as well as wins. Hoping for what is actual makes a team’s rare Grey Cup victories sweeter than always getting what a childish part of us wants.
As children, we hope for perfection, and it always eludes us. But later in life, we come to realize that perfection is neither possible nor desirable. Another song of Cohen’s, “Anthem,” makes this point.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
When we realize that it is the cracks that allow in the light, we stumble into Grace.
Today’s Gospel reading is about becoming a parent. It tells of the conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth. This is the final in a long series of conceptions involving impossibly old people in the Bible. It is told just before the story of another miraculous conception, that involving Elizabeth’s young relative Mary who is the mother of Jesus, and which we will hear next week.
Unlike Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and David, Zechariah is frightened when the Angel Gabriel appears to him. Unlike them, he does not say “Here I am.” He may also be afraid about becoming a parent since parenting is the most difficult and risky thing most people ever undertake. The gospels tell us that King Herod executes his son John. We don’t know if he and Elizabeth are alive when John is killed, but we do know that Mary is present when John’s cousin Jesus is executed.
Most people hope for children, but being a parent brings pain as well as joy. This is yet another reason, I think, to look for the light that the cracks can let in.
Cohen suggests that God wants it darker. Advent is a dark season that leads to the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice on December 21. The light that follows at Christmas is light that shines through the cracks of life.
When we stop hoping for perfection, we are freed to hope for what is actual, including reality’s many cracks and the light that sometimes shines through them.
We may not like winter’s dark and cold. But we can find beauty and passion there. We may not like the violence of today’s society, but it is the only place where we can feel the joy of working with others for justice, of singing carols of love, and of caring for one another.
When Leonard Cohen died on November 7, I imagine that his practice of singing “Here I am” helped him “to stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on his lips but Hallelujah.”
My prayer for us this Advent is that we will forget our perfect offering and instead sing Cohen’s refrain of faith, hope and love: “Hineni / Here I am Lord.”
May it be so. Amen