Monday, December 24, 2007

Born in a Stable

Apologies may be in order here, my friends. We have reached Christmas Eve and the conversation I had hoped to be having with you about earth and soul, body and God remains unfinished. But perhaps that is as God wishes. Christmas is not finished. It is a beginning. The body and society, as a good friend said, is a large issue that has different meanings at different times. So does our perception of what it means to be human and fulfilled. Still, one thing remains. Perhaps the most important thing any of us can learn is to live gracefully within our skin, to let go of our attachment to physical states much as Joseph was told to let go of his attachments and marry Mary. Far from being an impediment to the spiritual life, the Body is most crucial to it. Our bodies are the temples within which our spiritual life comes to consciousness. The Buddhists teach that spirits love to be at home in the material world, which is why untrained ones will choose a quick reincarnation as an ant over the more deliberate and difficult process of being reborn a human being.

Someone – I wish I could remember who – said recently that perhaps we erred when we spoke of little Jesus born in a humble stable because no one would make room for him. This person went on to say that God could be born wherever he wanted to be born and that therefore the stable was really the birthplace of choice – the only proper place for God to appear. A stable is one of the most vivid places where mammal meets civilization: a house of fur and hair, a house where the sacred worlds of food and work have their home. To be incarnated is to be both fully divine and fully enfleshed.

Merry Christmas, dear ones.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What Her Body Know

At our Tuesday theology group, one of us asked, “Why were the early Christians so hard on their bodies? It feels somehow off to me. I’m glad we don’t have that problem anymore.”

“I wonder,” I answered, perhaps too quickly. “When I look around me, I see a culture that’s hard on our bodies, too. It’s just different. The modeling industry. The American health care establishment. The international trafficking in children. Drugs. Obesity.”

“But that is only some of us. It is not all of us. I had a massage today. My body said ‘thank you.’”

And so did we. The question remained, but a wise questioner had turned it into a friend.

That our bodies get us into trouble continues to be a deep assumption within the Christian church. In our age of medical miracles, death as “giving up,” physical fitness, dieting, medications and relaxed sex, we don’t want to think that the body sets limits. Modern conservatives ignore the hungry and the ill and dwell upon homosexuality and abortion, the two “safe sins” of the white, straight male. I remember reading of life in a Jesuit seminary that sounded like a 1950’s boys locker room, a cold shower the antidote to the temptations of sex. How different from my friends who are Buddhist monks and nuns who simply say that a life of pure meditation is a better way. The boyish West fights with the body, the more contemplative East shapes it into an instrument of prayer.

When I look at my body, I do not see sin. I see skin and hair. I feel breath and moisture. I touch clothes touched by the wet noses of my two dogs. I know that the body I call “mine,” is in fact a great collaboration of cells and organs, nourished by my blood like earth nourished by “the early and late rains.” It is my consciousness that imposes a narrative upon this flesh and calls this community “Carol.”

In my heart I know that if I loved that community that gives me life, I would care for it better. It is the industrial world’s depredation of our body, the collaboration of cells we call “Earth,” that tells me what my culture’s real attitude is. In the deep night of winter I wonder whether our culture’s horror of asceticism may not also be an unvoiced horror at our own excess.

Monday, December 17, 2007

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Recently, the papers reported that a patient was allowed to bleed to death in an American inner city emergency room because no one would take responsibility for her care. It made me wonder about things, about a world where health care has become an industry and not a ministry. The woman died of a perforated bowel. She had an Hispanic surname.

We live in a culture that, for all the lip service paid to religion, appears to take great offense at God. God gives freely to all. We expect payment. God is life. Our world remains fascinated by the power of death. If we Christians believe that God really walked the earth in the form of Jesus Christ, then we would do well to pay attention to Jesus. Jesus was a healer. He gave health as a sacrament, not a commercial transaction. Jesus relieved people of leprosy, psychosis, paralysis, blindness, deafness, epilepsy, hemorrhage, death and terror. All that he asked in return was that we keep faith in the processes of life. The only thing he asked of us was to choose life no matter how great appeared the evidence for death.

Jesus lived in an agonistic, imperial world that imposed order by force and turned law from a tool of discernment into an instrument of control. In this world it was taught that illness was the fruit of sin. Too much fat in the diet, not enough exercise, a bad lifestyle all exerted its compensatory pound of flesh. The high cost of health care becomes propitiation for the high cost of sin. But as anyone who knows and loves the law knows, the moment we begin to think this way, law ceases to be our teacher and becomes our dictator. We lose the grace that is present in times of illness and stress. Or as the more modern healer, Carl Jung, wrote, “A man [sic] is ill, but the illness is nature’s attempt to heal him.”

To see illness as the beginning of healing rather than the judgment of a wrathful God may have been the most radical jewel in Christ’s ministry. All the same, very early on in Western “civilization,” even before Christ, a fissure opened up between the mind and the body, between heaven and earth, father and mother, the rational and the mythical, the physical and the psychological, nonfiction and fiction, animal and human, with the result that as a culture we are compelled to deal with a schizoid existence, cut off from one another and from ourselves, unable to fully apprehend either ourselves as individuals or in relationship to one another.

Whatever you may believe about Jesus, the idea that God would love us so much that he would sanctify the very dirt and bone from which we are made is powerful indeed. I wonder if we would all live differently if we really knew that earth and dirt and rocks and yellow jackets were holy?

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is This the One?

“Is this the one, or are we to wait for another?”

A great deal has happened since we encountered John in the wilderness last Sunday. The bulldozers have come in and razed the place and the wild man now lives behind bars, domesticated and vulnerable to the whims of whomever. John’s call to repent went too far. He was too much himself, perceived as too threatening to a society whose "peace" depended upon control and order. Nature offends the factory. A manipulative political order has a way of expressing displeasure at its critics by clapping them in irons, sending them to the far reaches of the empire, subjecting them to extreme discomfort. Torture is the psyche’s most extreme projection; it forces another to bear and suffer for my own creeping dissatisfactions that though I have all the force in the world at my control, I am still only a shadow of a person. In hurting another, I am literally taking it all out on them: casting off the very waste material of my heart which would save me in order to destroy you.

Even in his cage, John wanted to know. He wanted to know whether his words had rung true, as any of us who speak with God want to know: Have I heard right? Did I serve the truth? Have I made straight the way through the wilderness and and helped others to see? So he sent disciples to ask the one he had baptized and watched go into the desert; he sent disciples to the one upon whom the dove had descended. Are you the one?

Jesus knew better than to answer that question. Perhaps he was not ready to answer it. Answers are like the sower's seeds; they need time to ripen. If they are told outright too soon, they are lost, just as an unseasonable frost can kill budding fruit. Jesus did not address the Messiah question. Rather he told John’s disciples to look around them and see what John had helped them to see. John’s disciples may or may not have been able to recite the doctrinal criteria for messiah-ship, but they had been in the river with John and had scales washed from the eyes of head and heart. They saw the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor having good news brought to them. These are important, for they are the very obvious signs that God is near.

It’s about time.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tribulation Force

“Every generation loses the Messiah they did not deserve.”
Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union


Another of the texts we read during Advent (this year in the Daily Office) is the Book of the Revelation of John. Revelation is one of the better dream texts in literature. Like all good dream texts, it’s not an easy read. It tests Jeremy Taylor’s first rule of dreamwork: “All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a "bad dream" -- only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” (www.jeremytaylor.com/pages/toolkit.html)

It’s easy, and perhaps even important, to heed the warnings conveyed in nightmares, but if that is all I do, I will read Revelation as did Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, those self proclaimed “doctors” of prophecy and literature, and authors of the Left Behind series. If there was ever a hateful book about the God of love, this one’s it. This is a series about war. War gives men an excuse to use everything up, to kill for the cause of peace. It is the nightmare that warns that our instincts are clouded and sick, that they have come completely detached from our wisdom. The fantasy of the Left Behind series is that the Tribulation Force need not wait to get what it wants: SUV’s, guns, and every high tech and natural resource guzzling gadget – all for the sake of God! It’s an absurd idea in every way, of course. I mean really. If the world is coming to an end, are oil tankers and refineries going to continue to hum as usual? Will batteries remain charged and power plants generate reliable electricity?

As I read Left Behind, the story of “salvation” plunged me into primal terror. I realized that these books said far less about what will or will not happen when civilization crashes than they had to say about civilization right now at this very moment. It is not Rayford, Buck and Bruce who are throwing caution to the wind and burning up the earth, it is I. It is I who am dropping bombs on Baghdad and supporting a world in which a gas glutton Hummer becomes a status symbol and I can feel like a commando right here on the home front.

And so I get to the quote which begins this passage. “Every generation loses the Messiah they did not deserve.” It springs from a belief among certain Jews that the Messiah is in fact born every generation, but because we cannot deal with it, we lose him. He goes mad, or descends into addiction, taking on the very sins and despair he or she has come to heal.

Jews, of course, don’t believe Jesus was the One. For one thing, the Messiah, once come, never leaves. Jesus was crucified and if he came back in the Resurrection, he did not remain with us. We got half the lesson. Jesus ascended into heaven saying, “I’ll be back.” And so, for Christians, the question hangs: is he with us always or not? Are we open to the lives and the faiths of others? Do our daily lives reflect the wonder of God's love? Do we heal? Do we practice (if not always achieve) the peace that passes understanding? I mean, Jesus loved those most quarrelsome Greeks! But I look around me today, and I see a church divided, who does not seem to love much of anybody, and I wonder.

This breaks my heart. I think it may be one of the fundamental reasons we have Advent.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wilderness Revisited

John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness, clad in skins, like an Israelite fresh from the desert, or a being newly arrived out of Eden. He is pre-agricultural. His message is that we took a wrong turn somewhere back around the invention of agriculture, when we built cities, armies and forced slaves to do our work. His message is that God’s power is not about empire and structure and the terror of death, but is about life, collaboration. The truth is different than what our eyes see and our ears hear. In God’s world, lions really do lie down with lambs, and the fact that they don’t at the moment is not a reflection, upon nature, but upon our stewardship of creation.

God made us the caretakers of creation, and that did not change when we were impulsive and ate the fruit of knowledge too soon, but we sure wanted to make it that way. Instead of continuing our work, older and wiser, we lashed out at God, blaming him for cursing us, and formulating a rigid doctrine of original sin. We took that “curse” and imposed purity laws upon women and animals. Original sin gave men a reason to create hierarchies and control others “for their own good,” “to save them from their impetuous nature.” This only proves that original sin can be a most intoxicating idea. When there is nothing that can be done about our bad nature, one might as well just go with it and grasp as much as you can. Original sin makes it possible to settle for less, to punish others, to create hierarchies based, not upon goodness, but upon the control of evil.

John says that’s serpent talk, not human talk. Curses were made to be broken. God set us a task when we left Eden, not a punishment. But instead of building up the world, we wallowed in our own unworthiness. How unhelpful can you get? Get over it, says John. Wash all that bad thinking away. Come and be baptized. Shed the blindness of a society that equates power with cruelty and slavery and poison, that blames others because God maybe blamed me. Be born again. Grow wild. Go slowly. Listen for the voice of God amid the waves. Find the true power, which is life, which is community, which is abundance.

As an eco-theologian, I am always tempted to stop there. I am tempted, as I have done in previous years, to link John the Baptist with my hero John Muir and to proclaim with Henry David Thoreau that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I want to plunge into the waters and swim with the fish, to return to the great well of Creation.

But I cannot. I can’t stay in the waters forever. John is the threshold, not the destination. He is here to prepare me, not to return to nature, but to become one with it again so that I might take the next step. Nature is where I am called to repent, says John, for how I treat it will define how I treat everything else. Is the world a series of resources, including human resources, to exploit, or is it a community to be a part of, to love, to learn, to give, to seek truth and happiness?

As I said, Advent is a hard season. The Church year begins with hard questions. Amid all the noise and the haste, it is asking me: can I recognize the Christ, or have I, in the midst of my fear and self-love lost him? Can I meet the Christ Child when he or she comes again? Can I lay aside my life’s work and embrace a whole new world? Am I ready to give up my answers and take into my arms the greatest mystery in all creation; can I bow before a newborn child?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Come Back!

When something gets this strange at the edges, it’s a good sign that we stand at the threshold of change. Thresholds, like Advent, are strange, standing before one, but not crossed, something that has not happened yet. Thresholds have guardians. The guardian at the threshold always demands something before he or she lets us pass. Gatekeepers are as enigmatic as the gates they guard: the sphinx with her riddle, the ferryman to whom we pay the coin, the final exam that must be passed before the student can move on, the costs of a wedding. On the journey of life, we pass many such thresholds and face a great variety of guardians. John is the threshold to the Christ. We can’t get to Jesus without first understanding him. We can’t get to the Christ without paying John’s price.

Looked at from the perspective of our own age’s great idea, which is evolution, going down into the waters represents biological regression. It represents the waters from which all life on earth emerged. John stands there, contrary to all our notions of progress and the march up the evolutionary scale. “Come back!” he seems to cry. “You’ve taken the wrong shortcuts! Too far, too fast. Come back.”

From the more recent perspective of John’s own history, his standing at the Jordan represented a return to the moment when the desert journey was over and the Promised Land lay in view, but was yet untouched by cruel wars and kings and bad ideas of power. Each, in different ways, invites us to become pristine again. John is the baptizer, the washer away of disordered desires, the one who says, “You can begin again. You can get it right.”

Just about everything that is written and preached about baptism emphasizes this quality of return. In baptism, say the wise ones, we experience a second birth. In baptism, we die to what we were so that we might be changed in a way that we can hardly even imagine. In baptism, says our Prayer Book, we “share in Christ’s death.” I wonder how closely any of us pay attention to this when a sweet baby and her happy family is brought into church.

I want to be comfortable. I want sweet babies and God sends me a wild Baptist. So I build walls around myself and call them “progress.” I cut myself off from nature and call it “civilization.” But none of that deters John. Despite all my best efforts, John appears and says, “Come back.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who Was He?

Into this strange and often terrible season, on its second Sunday to be precise, walks John the Baptist. John the Baptist is as strange as anything that Advent can throw in our direction. Indeed, he may be one of the most misunderstood characters in our whole sacred story. He’s a man from another age -- and he was from another age when he first appeared 2,000 years ago -- wild and hairy, who makes his home at the edges of civilization. John cries out with ancient words, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.” What on earth does that mean? What Kingdom? What are we to hope for? A new political order? A theocracy? A peaceful revolution? As many of my seminary professors hinted, is the Kingdom of Heaven some hierarchical idea that we in the modern democracies should be suspicious of? John doesn’t tell us. He simply says, if you want to know, you’ve got to meet me halfway. Come, enter the waters and be baptized. It can’t be explained. It must be experienced. If you want to see what’s coming, you’ve got to start with me.

Although John is an essential character in the Jesus story, in the popular imagination at least, there can hardly be two more different men: John, fulminating and wild, his hair a ragged tangle about his face and Jesus, who is always shown always dressed in white robes, floating beatifically down to the river with luminous grace and sanctity. The one fierce, the other loving. The one representing the prophetic voice of the “Old Testament God,” the other the loving touch of “the New Testament God.” Or so, in my constant search for comfortable categories, or, to be more blunt, in my constant search for comfort, I would like to think. But there are not two gods. There is one God. And John tells me that, yes, all that love is there, but I’m not going to find it, not really, until I repent.

And so comes John to call me to do just that. He stands with a light turned right on my cherished inner darkness. Am I surprised that in the movies, he’s rather unpleasant character, yelling at the Pharisees and the Saduccees like every religious nut who prowls Sproul Plaza or Grand Avenue? Isn't that just what my inner darkness, shielding my eyes, wants me to think? How can this be the path to the beautiful Christ Child, beloved by all, sleeping in the straw as the silent stars go by? Either there is something very odd going on, or I do not get John the Baptist, I do not get him at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Second Week of Advent: John the Baptist

Note: The postings for Monday - Wednesday are taken from a sermon I preached on December 9, 2007, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland.

Around them boomed the rhetoric of time,
The smells and furniture of the known world
Where conscience worshiped an aesthetic order
While in the center of its vast self-love,
Sat Caesar with his pleasures, dreading death.
-W.H. Auden, “Kairos and Logos”

More than any other moment in the Church year, Advent is the season when the sacred meets the world, when Caesar’s world of pleasure and self-love is touched by the far greater love of God. Advent reminds us that we stand at the brink. It’s very essence is about what has not happened yet. No matter what they want you to believe, no matter what the Advent reflections written by the pool in July to meet publication deadlines have to say, Advent, when we’re really in it, is not a comfortable season. The words “I want! I want!” resound above the horns of cars and the tinkling of prerecorded bells. If haste is the norm in our world, haste doubles during Advent. Between November 1 and December 24, we’ve got to do every good deed that has been left undone; we must fill our nights and weekends with revels and the Nutcracker and all the “magic” of the season. In such a high pitched frenzy, any semblance of polite cover up becomes impossible. Tempers flare; illness strikes; tears flow and the system shows its cracks. The world screams money; it screams taxation in the reign of Caesar Augustus, it lifts up those who have and those who have not, the grinding misery of the third world grinds out product after product for 17 cents a day so that engorged corporations can report profits of billions as they suck the life out of them and us. . . And yet, it also brings us together in a mysterious way as I hold the things that they have made. Advent has a lot of this strange togetherness, woven from traffic jams and crowds.

But a moment comes when it is all too much. A moment comes when I am not waiting for a sweet baby in a manger long ago, I am looking for a savior right now. I am standing in a corner of our poisoned earth; I am standing with the poor who have given their lives so that I might be rich, and I am saying “Dear God, save me from all this. Dear God, save the mess that we have made of your world. And most of all, dear God, save me from myself.”

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Buddhist Perspective

From 2001-2003 I attended Buddhist teachings on Tuesday nights. I liked them very much, but after a long day’s work across the bay, I was often very tired by the time I got there. Usually, the Jasmine tea and cookies that were offered revived me, but one night, I was so gone that even that did not work. We did not have our usual teacher, but a very brilliant nun whose soft spoken teaching revealed great clarity of thought. Still, as much as I wanted to, I could not follow a word she said. I just wanted it to be over so that I could go home and go to bed. And then, I was aware that she had paused. I noticed that I was not the only zoned out one in the room. There was silence. And out of that silence came the question which has haunted me ever since, “Don’t you want to be happy all the rest of your days? Don’t you want to find peace beyond your wildest dreams?”

The reason I remember it so well was because at that moment I didn’t care a fig about being happy or finding peace or any of the above. I just wanted to go home and go to bed. It was then that I began to suspect that there might be something terribly skewed about my view of the universe. When I am too exhausted to even feel the glimmer of happiness, perhaps it is time to question what is making me exhausted.

Advent asks us to explore what is making us all so tired. For all its rich end of the world imagery, Advent isn’t itself the end. The days draw short, but there is still time. Indeed, Advent is the very gift of time that, like the nun's teaching, is so hard to receive.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Be Awake!

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. (Romans 11:13)

It’s an almost disturbing thing, notes my protesting voice, that religious sages spend so much of their time informing me that I’m asleep. In one way or other they all teach that the basic rule of the spiritual life is neither prayer nor worship nor service to others but simply being alert to what is, that all the rest of it, the prayer, the worship, the service springs from cultivating this basic fact. Being awake is the foundational teaching in Buddhism. We read in last Sunday’s Gospel, "For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The prophets came to show Israel that God’s ways were not always the same as theirs. Since Israel was beloved of God, it suggests that there is no great soporific than thinking that just because God chose us, we have it made.

On the other hand, how many times have religious nuts gotten up and told us to shape up and look sharp, that the end is near, only to have it fizzle? To name but two, in 1844, followers of William Miller were told that the world as we know it was going to conclude on October 22. Many people, believing him, sold all that they had and went out to await the rapture that never happened. Interestingly, however, the Bahais believe that the old world did in fact come to an end that year, but that most of us were too busy looking the other way to even notice. Many of us still remember the rapture hysteria that swept the United States during the Reagan years, that resulted in the odd, badly written and quite terrifying “Left Behind” series of fourteen novels in which religion is turned into war. Meanwhile, we're still going, eating, drinking, getting hitched and unhitched, making money, worrying about our kids, driving our cars and so on.

Or are we? If we're not awake, how can we be sure?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Blue Door

Among the Orthodox, Mary Theotokos the God bearer is the first to understand that the time is now. Hers are the first ears that hear the divine messenger, whispering that the way out of madness is at hand, in her hands, to be precise. Mary is in every way a threshold guardian, a liminal being. She is the gateway between human and divine, heaven and earth. One of her attributes is the Blue Door. Blue is the color of Heaven and the door represents the narrow passage between the two. The Blue Door is indistinguishable from the surrounding sky unless you know exactly where to look. Mary knew where to look. Mary could hear the angel's voice amid the haste and clamor of the world. She herself became the narrow way by which the Divine entered. In every spiritual tradition is this sense that the way out, or the way in, is a tight one.

All faith traditions are suspicious of the broad boulevard with its gleaming headlights and bright displays, its call to lose ourselves in its otherness. But again, do not be hasty in your conclusions. Contrary to the television series "Mad Men," Madison Avenue is not necessarily the road to perdition. Nor are hours of reflection and a good ascetic work out at the gym the way of salvation. God is not so obvious. The narrow way can be a dead end, and the world a cathedral. God loves the world. Since God is everywhere, it is not so much about God as it is about my ability to see. As it happend, the television series "Mad Men" showed me truths I could have never otherwise seen.

As Eugene Peterson writes in 2007’s most beautiful Advent book, God with Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, (Paraclete Press), “Every year Christmas comes around again and forces us to deal with God in the context of demanding and inconvenient children; gatherings of family members, many of whom we spend the rest of the year avoiding; all the crasser forms of greed and commercialized materiality; garish lights and decorations. Or maybe the other way around: Christmas forces us to deal with all the mess of our humanity in the context of God who has already entered that mess in the glorious birth of Jesus.” The important word here is "already." It's here. The Messiah never dies. It's here. It's about time.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Winter Madness

Therefore, Advent is not tragedy. Like Buddhism, Advent does not raise its fist against the abyss, but sees fulfillment in emptiness. The encroaching darkness turns out be a virgin’s womb.

Among the Western Churches, Advent begins the Church Year. Advent is not a natural beginning like a birthday. There is no occasion to mark the coming of Advent. No solstice, equinox, birth, event or death marks it. It just comes, a month before Christmas, rather like the dusk of that most harried day I thought would never end.

Be awake, for you do not know the day or the hour. Be awake. It is hard to stay awake in winter, to rise from our beds while stars still hang in the sky, to emerge from the subway mere blocks from the office just as dawn is breaking in the East. Winter fills us with dreams of sleep, with night visions, with the hope that if I bundle tight enough into the covers that it will all go away and that I will find peace. Winter threatens depression. Children in the far north stand under sunlamps to avoid rickets or seasonal affective disorder.

The first peoples knew about the disorders of winter. Reverie could cost you your life when the world is frozen and dark. Among the Greenlanders was a well known madness that struck in late autumn and to which women and dogs were especially susceptible and which often resulted in death, the end of the world. The Chukchi of northeastern Siberia tell the story of a girl who wintered in a grave house among the dead. She returned in the spring to reassure her family, but things could never be the same again and after not much time, she left forever to return to her home among the dead. In a dream I had as an adolescent, winter arrived as a fleet of black flying reptiles who devoured the white pelicans of summer, turning their falling feathers into snow. Madness is present in Advent, too, the frenzy of shopping and desire, the loss of restraint and boundary that doctors associate with insanity, a disorder of borders.

O come O come Emmanuel. It’s about time.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's About Time: Meditations for Advent

Week One: The End of the World

Sunday

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . .Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24)

The season of Advent begins each year with readings about the end of the world. A beginning. An ending. Even as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child into our hearts, Jesus, full grown in today's Gospel, preaches apocalypse. The world is ending. The days are growing short, the nights deep. Summer is just a memory. In many parts of the hemisphere, warmth is giving way to bitter cold. The Church Year cycles with the natural year and as seasons change, so do we. The only permanence is impermanence. The world has been ending for millions of years. "Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left." Change is about endings. Change is about beginnings. The brilliant idea of a generation ago thwarts the thriving of this one. Children become parents and parents become children. The changes in season help us to practice this cycle of loss and renewal, and as we pray through the seasons, we learn to see God’s grace and faithfulness at the very center of the changes and chances of this life. But we don't see it at first. At first all that we see is that one is taken and one will be left. Is it better to be taken? Is it better to be left?

For the correspondences between calendar and Church are not exact. "Suns may rise and set again," writes the Roman poet Catullus, "But once our brief light goes out, night is one perpetual sleeping." "Keep awake," says Jesus. Sacred time is not a recapitulation of calendar time or even of natural time; it is its own time. It distorts time, in the way a prism or a mirror distorts light. Paradox is the great axis of religious teaching. What appears to be solid turns out to have no substance. The Spirit is born in a barn. Things are not as they seem. Assume nothing when you direct your thoughts toward God. The end of the world says, "We're all going to die!" Jesus comes to tell us that we're all going to live.

“There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Hamlet. A prince. A tragedy. The fall of the mighty. Tragedy reveals one kind of attitude toward change. Tragedy glories in the inevitability of loss, the way the world has deprived you of happiness. Tragedy is the glory of Greece and Rome, the mantle of Caesar Augustus, the melodrama of the gated community, "That mourns in lonely exile here/Until the son of God appear." It's about time.