As we enter the season of candlelit wonder and awe, I have been considering what reverence means.
Is it reverence that stirs when we sing “Silent Night” by candlelight? Was it reverence, in the ancient story two millennia ago, that brought shepherds and kings to their knees before a poor and homeless baby born in a barn? What awe, awakened by a bright star in the vast night sky, beckoned the travelers to the child’s side, a more distant admiration deemed not enough? All were called in close to witness the infant’s small, new life. How could they not bow to see the humble child whose light so powerfully drew them near?
Mary Oliver, in a different time and place, wrote, “And someone’s face, whom you love, will be as a star/ both intimate and ultimate, / and you will be both heart-shaken and respectful.”
We humans have countless defenses against the heart-shaking risks of proximity and love, of reverence and the relationship from which it grows. There is propriety, and politics and plain old pride. Individualism and independence. Cynicism and skepticism. Autonomy and analysis. Freedom or fatalism. Denial, disengagement or difference. Each of these – and more – can hold us many paces out from true encounter with the holy spark inside ourselves and others.
How can we experience reverence — or the love that grows from it — if we are unwilling to humbly draw near, to cross the differences and distances that divide us today?
In the early 19th century, William Ellery Channing, whose praise of human goodness gave shape to the emerging American Unitarianism, said, “I do and I must reverence human nature.” But that reverence began with a close up, clear-eyed view of both our best and worst possibilities.
“I shut my eyes on none of [humanity’s] weakness and crimes,” he wrote. “But injured, trampled on, and scorned as our nature is, I still turn to it with intense sympathy and strong hope. And I thank God that my own lot is bound up with that of the human race.” For Channing, reverence was a call into relationship with humanity’s goodness and its failures too. Perhaps this was also what the ancient travelers following the star to Bethlehem discovered – the sympathy and hope that rises when our own lot is bound up with the whole human condition, both beautiful and broken. It is the promise of the Beloved Community as well.
Of course, being bound into relationship with all of humanity may arouse our fear. Who has not known the inner quaking that comes from love’s heart-shaken way of exposing us to loss and disappointment? Are we willing to choose it anyway?
So the angels commanded the shepherds to “Fear not.” Which is another way of saying, come closer. Draw near.
Perhaps this is the season’s call to reverence: to see the lights shining around, above and within us all as invitations to come closer. To be guided across unknown distances – into relationship with a new life often found in the most unexpected places. To reverently pay homage to our human goodness and our frailty, born in the humble hay of every day, waiting for us to draw near. How else will we be blessed by love’s light, intimate and ultimate, in this season of lengthening nights?
What do you revere, and how do your practices of reverence make room for the failures of humanity and the world we live in? What reverent relationships are you called into today, to participate in the repair of our broken world? I wonder, what reverence might be awakened in me if I let myself draw a little nearer to those different from me, to humbly acknowledge the divine spark within us all?
Adapted from a reflection on Reverence by Karen Hering published in the December 2019 issue of CommUNITY.