Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent 4

Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Today, as we teeter on the brink of Christmas,
the Church offers for our consideration
the story of the Visitation:
the pregnant Mary’s visit
to her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth.
This event might be familiar to some as the second joyful mystery
upon which one meditates when praying the rosary.
To others is might be more familiar as the subject matter
of great paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Albertinelli, and Raphael.
Whether as a joyful mystery to be meditated upon
or as a subject depicted with great beauty by artists,
the story of the Visitation –
Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary as blessed
and the unborn John the Baptist leaping in her womb
in recognition of the Messiah whom Mary bears within her –
seems to be a fitting prelude to the joy and beauty of Christmas.

The poet Jessica Powers captures some of this joy and beauty
in the opening lines of her poem “The Visitation Journey,”
in which she meditates on Mary’s journey to Elizabeth:
The second bead: scene of the lovely journey
of Lady Mary, on whom artists confer
a blue silk gown, a day pouring out Springtime,
and birds singing and flowers bowing to her. 
But then Powers introduces a note of skepticism
about this picture she has painted.
If we consider the incredible news
that Mary had received from the Angel,
the news that she, a virgin, in some ways still a child,
would give birth to the Son of the Most High God,
then perhaps her journey to visit Elizabeth
was neither entirely joyful nor completely saturated in beauty.

Powers continues:
Rather, I see a girl upon a donkey
and her too held by what was said to mind
how the sky was or if the grass was growing.
I doubt the flowers; I doubt the road was kind. 
Rather than the calm and self-possessed Queen of Heaven
whom we might envision in our prayers
or see in great works of art,
Jessica Powers presents us with the image of a young girl,
her mind filled with all that had recently transpired,
preoccupied on her journey with trying to make sense
of how God had grabbed her life and shaken it,
overturning all that she had expected
and promising her something she could barely imagine.

It is still a joyful mystery, a beautiful mystery,
but its joy and beauty are of a sort
that can only be taken in slowly and with great effort.

Powers concludes her poem:
“Love hurried forth to serve,” I read, approving.
But also see, with thoughts blown past her youth,
a girl riding upon a jolting donkey and
riding further and further into the truth. 
Jessica Powers suggest to us that Mary’s visit to Elizabeth
was not unmarked by fear and perplexity.
But it was not only a journey of fear and perplexity.
Because of her faith, Mary knew
that despite her fear and perplexity
her journey was a journey further and further into the truth.
It was faith that allowed her to see this,
which is why Elizabeth says to her,
“Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Teetering on the edge of the great mystery of Christ’s birth,
Mary was no doubt filled with fear and perplexity
but she was also filled with faith:
truly blessed was she who believed.

And we too, teetering on the edge of the Christmas feast,
have not been immune to fear and perplexity
as the past week has brought more and disturbing news
of the school killings in Connecticut.
And we can only try to imagine the fear and perplexity
of the families and friends of those who died.
What can Christmas mean for those whose lives
have been touched by such horror?
What does it means to celebrate Christmas
in the shadow of the cross?

Blessed are you who believe
that fear and perplexity
do not have the last word,
but that we are even now journeying
further and further into the truth.
Blessed are you who believe
that the horror and suffering
of a world awaiting redemption
cannot completely hide
the joy and beauty of Christmas.
Blessed are you who believe
that the Christ whom we expect,
whom we await
and in whom we rejoice
will visit us in his mercy
and heal our broken world.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent 1

Readings: Jeremiah 33: 14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Advent is a season of expectation:
a time of expectant preparation
for our celebration of Christ’s birth 2000 years ago,
for the coming of Christ into our lives today,
and for the glorious return of Christ on the last day.
This Sunday our attention is drawn particularly
to Christ’s future coming in glory:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

Of course, this year things are a little bit different,
since this year we know that
when the ancient Mayan calendar runs out 
on December 21, 2012,
the end of the world is upon us,
whether it is caused by a black hole eating up the earth
or a collision of the earth with the mysterious planet Nibiru.
And I’ve got to say that knowing this 
certainly simplifies things in my life:
I’ve told my daughter Sophie
to forget about getting those college applications done
and I’m thinking about canceling
the repairs on our leaking roof.

Speculation and prediction about when the world will end
is not really something unique to this year
and to enthusiasts for the Mayan calendar.
Last year the radio preacher Howard Camping
predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011,
and, when May 21st came and went,
revised that to October 21st.
Prior to that, various groups and individuals
had predicted the end of the world in
1889, 1874, 1844, 1763, 1585, 1533, 1370,
1284, 1260, 1033, 1000, 992, 793, 500.
In fact, I think we can safely presume that pretty much every year
has been a candidate for the world’s end in somebody’s calculation.

I must admit that 
I don’t take end of the world speculations very seriously,
and I suspect this is true of many of you as well.
But a lot of people do, so it is worth asking,
what is it that attracts people to such speculations?

I suppose that we might take a negative attitude toward them
and say that they are an expression of our human desire
for control over our own destinies,
a desire to put God on a timetable 
that we can plan around.
This is certainly part of what is going on,
and it is why the preacher Howard Camping
has recently denounced his own attempts
to predict the date of the world’s end as “sinful.”

But I don’t think such predictions are only
manifestations of a sinful desire for control.
I think that they are also a sign
that one is living one’s life 
in expectant hope of deliverance.
Those who look for this world’s ending
seem to be those who have a profound sense
that something is wrong with this world,
marked as it is by sin and death,
and that we await a deliverer who will set things right,
who will “do what is right and just in the land.”
Perhaps people come up with dates for this world’s end
because they yearn so fervently for a world where,
as our first reading says, we can “dwell secure.”
In other words, 
perhaps those most interested in the world’s end
are those whose lives in this world are most insecure,
whether materially, socially, emotionally or spiritually.

And perhaps people like me,
who tend to dismiss end of the world speculations,
might have something to learn 
from those who take them seriously –
not that the world will end on this or that date,
but the fundamental and undeniable truth
that my life is in fact insecure,
that the life that I have so carefully constructed
could collapse in an instant:
through sickness, unemployment, betrayal or death.
The one thing that does seem secure 
is that my world, my life, will end.
Perhaps what I need to learn is that, 
as Jesus says in today’s Gospel,
my heart has grown drowsy 
with the concerns of everyday life,
so that I overlook 
the fundamental insecurity and fragility
of my very existence,
not to mention the suffering of those
whose lives are far more insecure than mine:
the poor and the dispossessed.

To wake up to this insecurity is also, by God’s grace,  
to awaken to an expectant hope for a savior
in whose love I can dwell secure.
The message of the Gospel
is ultimately not about the insecurity of this life,
but about the security of the love of God
that comes to us in Jesus Christ,
the love that allows us to face life’s insecurities with hope,
knowing our redemption is at every moment at hand.
Because of the love that God has shown us in Jesus
we can look in hope beyond our insecurity,
not to a fixed date on which the world will end,
but to the certain advent in our lives of the God who is love
and whose love will one day be fully manifest in our world.