Sunday, December 03, 2006

First Sunday of Advent

Luke 21

25“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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Word association time: give me a one-word response to the word “Christmas.”

In the land of mixed emotions, I give you Christmas. Call it the ultimate subjective holiday, where each of us has a different experience based on countless factors: childhood experiences, family situation, belief system and more often than not, economics. All of this occurs in the context of fatigue, with many of us arriving at the special day completely exhausted. Is it any wonder that Christmas is the holiday of mixed emotions.

One of the exciting moments for me is the moment when Christmas decorations find their way from the secret hiding place in the basement (secret to me because I forget where they are). Year-by-year I experience those moments of recognition when well-worn decorations that emerge from the big container cry out for a place in the upcoming celebration.

The other thing that emerges from the big container is last year’s Christmas cards received. Like finding a treasure trove, these cards transport me back to the places and memories that word and picture provoke. Opening them again, there is great diversity: simple greetings, perhaps a line or two, or long epistles and sometimes a picture sent to provide a more comprehensive festive greeting. Some are religious, some not. Some are hand drawn, some are fancy, some relate to a cause or charity, some are clearly dollar store. All express some form of warm greeting.

Reflecting on this intersection between memory and emotion and the passage of time I came across the work of educator Karen daSilva and her writing in the area of memory and meaning. As a resource teacher, she sets a context for the activities children do and how they aid in learning. In her description, she explains an exercise with eight and nine year-olds called “reading a picture”:

I find a work of art that I'm really attracted to, and I spend time reading it or staring at it, and thinking about what I notice, think, remember and wonder. Sometimes I even find myself thinking of a story. If I really want to connect with the picture, I'll draw it Copying the picture helps me have a physical and mental contact with it. I can make connections. Drawing helps me to see the picture and begin to find my own meaning in it.*

This is also the moment that memory can come. What comes to mind? Do you find yourself in the present moment or transported somewhere in time? The author couples this with comments from kids and recorded this one from fourth grader named Hilary: "I looked at the art card and it was like a memory vacuum was sucking all of the memories from my mind."

Now, you are not likely going to have the time to redraw all of last year’s Christmas cards, and in fact some of you have may already been conscientious and recycled them. I know, however, that even the simple work of unpacking those decorations constitutes a “memory vacuum was sucking all of the memories” from your mind. Where do they take you? What is the abiding theme of these memories? What connections do they make to your present situation or your future hope? What is the meaning in your memory?


25“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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

Advent one is always about the end of the world. It seems it always has been. Long before seasonal readings were set down for us there was a connection drawn between Advent and the end of time. You can imagine the sweat pouring off preacher’s brows as they are confronted year-by-year by the “little apocalypse” found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. What possible meaning could we find for post-modern, 21st century, liberal mainline Protestants who likely never had a sense that the end of the world is coming?

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

The very fact that Jesus got this wrong seems reason enough to discount the entire “end of the world” genre. Paul made the same bold claim that his generation had better prepare for the end that was near. We know from history that when it didn’t happen, the followers of Jesus simply adapted their focus from specific waiting to a more general awareness that the quality of this life was something worth pondering.


When does it feel like your world is ending? I had one of those moments of critical insight on the occasion of the last Board meeting I went to before I left Cliffcrest. Looking around the room at twenty individuals, I was struck by the fact that every one of them had experienced some trial or loss in the eight years I was there. Some were touched by the sting of death, some experienced broken relationships, some illness. There were enough hips and knees replaced to make any orthopedic surgeon happy. Enough “pastoral care” had happened to convince anyone that suffering and loss is at the heart of the human experience.

This is what we would call the “low point” of the sermon.

“Hey, what did your preacher say on the first Sunday of Advent?”
“All of life is suffering and loss. Yours?”

I’m certain I’ve mentioned the book “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst, one of those books people read and recommend to people who are experiencing significant life changes. Someone did it for me, and the book was a helpful reminder that all of life is an endless series of beginnings and endings, joy and sorrow, discovery and loss, etc. The endings began the moment we left the womb and the beginnings began at the very same moment. It never ends.

It only feels like the end of the world, we might say. Or the opposite: this may feel new, but it has happened before and will happen again. Such is the way all things, including the holiday that looms before us: it has happened before and will happen again. Or perhaps: it happened, it keeps happening, and will happen again.

Back to the exercise of exploring memory for meaning. When we open the floodgates of memory, when we engage the “memory vacuum,” we quickly discover that time is distorted. What is past is real again. What once was becomes as present as the day it passed into memory. Future hopes and expectations form as the meaning of experience finds a setting in our present situation. Time is rendered meaningless.

This is not meant to negate the sense of loss we bring to the holiday. Quite the opposite, the process of finding meaning in memory is not to render it into something else but to allow it “to speak” to us in a new way. Imagine that each day is a rebirth. And also imagine that each day is an ending, best described as “bittersweet.” Taking a moment or two to find meaning in memory we may be confronted with surprises. From Karl Durckheim: “The first and most vital practice in everyday life is to learn effectively to value those moments in which we are touched by something hitherto undreamt of.” **


These are the words Jesus speaks to his disciples just before he describes the calamity to come:

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

The end of the world for the disciples, arrest and persecution, was not an end at all. It was a beginning. It was the beginning of the time when all they remembered of Jesus words, and all they experienced in the presence of the Risen Christ would come together to give them words to speak. This is meaning in memory and the power of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing to prepare in advance, no clever words to memorize because all they needed was already in memory and ready to be encouraged by the bidding of God’s spirit.

I encourage you to follow the disciple’s path. Draw on your memory to find meaning in the days ahead. Reflect on seasons past and prepare for the time to come. Reflect on joy and sorrow and resolve to create meaning in your life and the lives of others. And wait. Wait for the rebirth of hope that happened, it keeps happening, and will happen again.

** The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise (London: Allen & Unwin, 1988) p. 27.


Post a Comment

<< Home