I love words and I recently discovered a new one, a japanese expression called “yohaku.” It means the unpainted part of a painting. It is why a comb is useful, it is not the prongs but the holes between the prongs. It is why a cup is useful, it is what it can contain. It is sometimes called negative space. I learned about this concept in an interview with the son of the author E.L. Konigsburg. He talked about how his mother likes to write about the “yohaku” or the untold part. This image of the unsaid or untold part has remained with me.
And it has remained with me, because this untold part is what we need in Advent. We need to create space so that we can contain something bigger than ourselves. This may sound funny but think again of the cup. The cup is ready to receive whatever you pour in. We need to be like that cup. We need to be ready to receive the Good News that Christ is coming.
But this can feel impossible. I think during COVID, our lives are feast or famine. Many of us don’t have enough to do. We are cut off from our normal activities and circle or friends and family. And many of us are completely overwhelmed, trying to work from home and manage our children’s distance learning. So wherever you fall on this spectrum, it is hard to imagine how you might make room for Christ.
And no I don’t have any magical insight into how you might make room in your life for this good news. What I do have is this reading in Mark’s Gospel. And Mark begins by quoting the prophet Isaiah. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Isaiah was telling Israel and us that someone would come and help us get ready for the Lord. He will remind us to make our paths straight. And what a gift that is! We all need a reminder and here is ours. The Church has wisely given us some time to prepare for the mystery of Christmas.
Now back to this word “yohaku.” What if we spent Advent making room instead of getting ready for Christmas? Many of us try to cram extra things into Advent. It is when we decorate our house, buy lots of gifts, bake cookies, plan family meals and gatherings, take on adventurous toddler holiday crafts, visit people that we don’t normally get to visit, we go to see lights at a zoo, visit Santa at the mall, and many other busy things. And I am no different and there is certainly no blame with all of this Christmas busyness. The pressure is on every year to really enjoy ourselves, to make memories, to make Christmas happen really.
But this year everything is different. Many of these busy things aren’t available. We can shop online, bake cookies, do crafts and decorate. But zoo lights is cancelled and many of us won’t be traveling to visit families or cooking for 25 people. And while this is a great loss, it is also an opportunity. An opportunity for “yohaku.” Perhaps you can spend the time you would normally use to get ready for Christmas to make room for Jesus. Because there will likely be more free time this holiday season. A previously unheard of thought.
I hope to use some of this time to read Advent books that I bought while in seminary. I started seminary in 2012, just to give you an idea of how long I have been meaning to read these books. I want to use some of this time to sit quietly by myself and talk to God. I want to use this time to pray with my children. I want to use the time to sit and enjoy my family without feeling the need to get up and do something.
So while this Advent and Christmas might look very different, I hope that you can find some unexpected beauty in the “yohaku” of your life. Empty spaces can be profoundly beautiful and mysterious. The unpainted part can remind us of the wonderful gift that is coming. I pray that we can each find a way to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. If we can claim some unpainted space in our lives to get ready for Christmas, then perhaps we can focus more on all the things we do have instead of all the things that are different. Amen.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog