by Laurie Gudim
The whole of Luke 21 is Jesus talking about floods and famines, wars and insurrections, earthquakes and betrayals. He finishes up with the terrible poetry of today’s reading: there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.
I have to confess that I don’t know what to make of all this. But, then, neither did the first followers of Jesus, who thought all these things would take place in their lifetime. And neither have subsequent generations, including our own, because we keep seeing the end times in the disasters in the world around us. Every time something big and cataclysmic happens we think maybe it’s the end. You’d think we’d learn after 2,000 years, and just let the idea go – chalk it up to a misinterpretation of what Jesus said, or maybe to the early church putting words in Jesus’ mouth. But we don’t. And maybe we don’t for a reason.
Advent is the season in which we focus on being ready, being prepared. It is an invitation to try to live in the present moment, awake and alert. This is important because living in the present moment makes us aware of how we always rest in God. Behind all our doings is the deep being-ness of our union with the Holy. And also, being aware in our moments gives us the opportunity to meet Christ in our interactions with others. Each word we speak and each action we take can welcome Christ or ignore him.
I have a saying taped to the dashboard of my car: “Live these transitory moments in light of the eternity at the end.” It’s from an ancient Chinese book of wisdom, and it reminds me to pay attention to the present moment instead of worrying about the past or the future. Each of the moments we live out is part of a tapestry we cannot undo or reclaim. In each moment we have the opportunity for creativity or anxiety, to focus on our relationship with God or on our ego needs.
Advent preparation is for the Coming of Christ. Every week as part of our Eucharist we repeat three sentences in one form or another. They are the core of our belief, a kind of pared down creed, and they place us squarely in a world belonging to and run by God. They make an excellent Advent meditation, and I want to recommend them to you for that purpose.
We say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Or we say, “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.”
As one young biblical scholar I read put it, it’s about history, mystery and majesty.
My daughter has a new boyfriend, R.J., whom I met at Thanksgiving. He’s a coal miner. Furthermore, he likes being a coal miner. For him it’s the most meaningful work in the world. So of course my daughter prepped him before we arrived. “Don’t mention Obama,” she cautioned.
But we were both up at 5 am one morning as he was getting ready to go to work, and we happened to fall into a conversation in which we could really talk to one another. Sure enough, we don’t agree on anything. Pick a topic: abortion, world peace, race relations, economics, politics, and of course religion. We live our lives in very different ways, value very different things.
Even so, there is one most important thing we agree on. Thinking about how afraid he has been about the economy – he has survived two major lay offs at his company in the last 6 months – he said, “I guess I’ve just decided that I’m in God’s hands. So whatever happens will be all right. Whatever happens, God’ll be in it with me.” “I feel the same way,” I said. “Yes.”
This is the history part of “history, mystery and majesty”. Christ has died. We have a God who put on human flesh and walked among us on our planet, right here, where we could touch and hear him. Anything we can experience, God has experienced also, first hand. Pain. Loss of control. Grief. Hunger. God’s very nature is forever transformed, from the beginning of time to the end of the world, by the event of Jesus. God lived, tented among us. And so God is with us always because God has been with us in the most concrete way. Remembering that, we can live more securely in all our moments, because God is there with us.
The mystery part of history, mystery and majesty is that Christ is risen and death has not prevailed. Death – all death – physical, emotional, psychic – is transcended by the mysterious aliveness of Christ, a presence that transforms us all the time, here and now – transforms all our deaths. Jesus enters our hearts, like yeast in dough or weeds in a plowed field.
Years ago a friend of mine was feeling kind of depressed. “I should do more,” she said. “But I just can’t find anything in me that wants to.”
“Don’t do more,” I suggested. “Do less. Just talk to God. Complain. Whenever you think of it, just turn your attention to God and complain.
After a few weeks I saw her again. I could tell right away she had more energy. “I tried that talking to God,” she told me.
“Oh?” I said.
“It was interesting,” she said. “But maybe I didn’t do it enough or something. It didn’t really do much good.”
“You seem livelier somehow, though,” I observed.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “A few days ago I saw an article in the paper where Orville was asking for volunteers.” Orville was the owner and operator of the local shelter and food bank. “I decided to go check it out. And helping over there kind of gets me out of myself and gives me more energy.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “And wonderful, too, that you saw the article and went and tried it. A couple of weeks ago you didn’t want to do anything.”
We mused on that for awhile. Then she said, “I suppose I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been complaining to God. It was kind of like a challenge. Like, because I’d been complaining, it was somehow, ‘try this, smarty pants.’ So I went and did.”
Prayer is a very dangerous thing. It invites the Jesus-perspective – that death-transforming, life-changing, topsy-turvy point of view – into our most intimate hearts. Then before we know it we are thinking and acting in new ways. We’re heading off to Palestine or sleeping with the homeless as part of Faith Family Hospitality, giving away our money and our time, embarking on new creative projects – feeling loved for heaven sakes – and somehow secure in the midst of the wildest insecurity. The power of the risen Christ transforms our moments.
And that brings us to the majesty part of history, mystery and majesty. Christ will come again. We say this every week. What do we mean by it? For me, today, it means that the entire world will one day be wholly transformed. It will become the manifestation of God’s dream for it. God’s majesty, Christ’s majesty will become apparent. Personally I do not see this happening through great cataclysmic disasters. I think it will manifest as a change of consciousness, an understanding that transcends the little ego divisions we create. But what do I really know? I am just one tiny human being.
What Jesus says in today’s Gospel is: when terrifying things take place in the world, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. And redemption here means being claimed – grabbed like a coat from the hat check counter after the concert. “This one is mine.” In the face of all horrible things, personal or universal, this can be our response: that we belong to God. We are part of God’s creation, and we have God’s signature written in our DNA. We can be present to all our moments without worry. We are claimed.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. History, mystery and majesty. May your Advent preparation be fruitful and holy, and may you stand in your moments fully aware, knowing you are a beloved child of God. Amen.
*thanks to Working Preacher for Bible scholarship.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. She will soon manage a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries.