Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's About Time: Meditations for Advent

Week One: The End of the World


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.

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