Of labyrinths, wreaths, and Advent

By Richard E. Helmer

The week before Thanksgiving, I received an email from a self-proclaimed Christian labyrinth expert in Australia, who was inviting recipients to view a set of three YouTube videos on the history of the ancient symbol. As I watched the first installment, I realized pretty quickly that through a series of logical leaps buoyed by cherry-picked scriptural verses (including some from Revelation) he had concluded that the labyrinth had no place in Christianity. In fact, he claimed, it was a symbol of evil and death. I found this perspective profoundly sad, given the slow, steady trickle of faithful, prayerful pilgrims that come to walk our labyrinth at our parish, or that our children regularly circle around it on Sunday mornings to make music to God and pray together as Christ taught us. My experience, along with the experience of so many in our community, is that the labyrinth is a place to encounter God, to empty ourselves and reflect on our inner journey, to find God’s calling for each of us, to walk on a path that – like the path of all our lives – wanders inevitably by grace into God’s heart.

When I wrote back to the author asking him to take our office off his email list, I received a reply essentially telling me I was flouting God’s Word. The argument was clearly over before it started, but I couldn’t resist reminding him that Christians have a long, hallowed history of turning profane symbols sacred – from the basilica to the Christmas Tree, from the labyrinth to the cross: itself originally a symbol of shameful, imperial execution. His study had begun with the labyrinth that held the Minotaur of ancient Greek legend. Our Christian labyrinth, on the other hand, is empty. It is empty, it strikes me, for two principle reasons: to welcome what pilgrims bring to it, and to make room for our encounter with the divine.

The whole conversation brought home to me what happens during Advent. As we begin a new year on the Church calendar, our sacred world fills with symbols – many of them adopted by Christians over the centuries from non-Christian sources. The Advent Wreath, connected with indigenous religions of Northern Europe, reminds us of the cycle of the life, the turn of the seasons, and our anticipation of the coming of Christ: the Light of the World. This year, we host a giving tree in our parish, a Christmas Tree adorned with the wishes and needs of our sisters and brothers living on the edge of survival. We are each invited to take one of these wishes and offer a gift to fulfill the need. Meanwhile, we begin to recount the story in which the promised birth of the Messiah captures not only the attention of a temple priest and a young virgin in Nazareth, but pagan astrologers in distant lands, shepherds on the fringes of society, and otherworldly, angelic beings.

Br. Jude Hill, in a recent talk at our parish about Franciscan spirituality, told us that in classical Western Christianity, there is often depicted a divine “Plan A” and “Plan B” for the world. Plan A is traditionally regarded as the Garden of Eden. When we make a mess of paradise, God implements Plan B: the coming of Jesus for our sins, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

But in Franciscan spirituality, there was never any Plan B. There was only one plan, and that was the Incarnation. God’s love for Creation and the human family was so great, the divine simply had to be born into it. . . to be with us, to be one of us. Sin is not undone by the satisfaction of a blood sacrifice to a wrathful God, but by a gracious God who embraces every failing in our human nature by becoming one of us and thereby lovingly transforming us – even the parts of us as horrifying, deadly, and painful as the cross – and making us utterly anew. And it was the Franciscans who introduced to us the living nativity scene, the root of our myriad annual Christmas pageants where the children dress up, recount the story, gather around the crèche and sing to the newborn Christ child. It is there we celebrate the Incarnation, the in-breaking of God’s reign for all times and places.

In one of our Eucharistic Prayers, we recount that God in Christ “yearned to draw all the world to himself,” the sense in which everything that we have been and are and will be, complete with our symbols both sacred and profane, are claimed by God in Christ and made anew in the Incarnation. Distant pagan wisdom journeys to mark the new reality. Shepherds are the first to hear of Emmanuel, God With Us. A peasant girl in a little-known Galilean village becomes the Mother of God. Labyrinths, rather than death traps for dangerous creatures, become life-giving opportunities to encounter God. Tribal symbols of darkness and light become reflections of the in-breaking of a God, the Light for all time and all peoples. All reality itself is undone and remade by God among us. This, to me, is the glory and hope of Advent and Christmastide, and so it remains among my favorite seasons of the Church Year.

Cluttered and busy it may be, but then it always has been. For God is not just busy reclaiming Christian souls, but the whole of the Cosmos. And that is a whole lot. . .a whole lot of Good News in a time where we need it now more than ever.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a postulant in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.

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  1. Kathy Staudt

    Thank you for this, Richard!

  2. Thanks Richard. At GC in Denver we had a big labyrinth in the worship space. It was so lovely to go amidst the flurry of business and resolutions and occasional rancor – to walk or dance or reflect with the labyrinth. Of course there was the predictable alarm – that some one had felt “sucked down to the devil” when she tried it. I am sorry that is how your correspondent and she felt — it can be a powerful place – and can evoke both peace and terror.

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