November 27, 2016
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
These lines from T. S. Eliot’s 1942 poem “Little Gidding” highlight the paradoxical nature of what we are doing here at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of the church year. We begin a new venture in our life with Christ and with each other when the calendar year is winding down and as we move toward the darkest time of the year, before the light starts returning at the end of December. We make a beginning, yet the Church appoints readings that have us thinking about the end, when Christ will come in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.
To make a good beginning, we must think of the end, both the end of what has gone before and the end that is to come. This gives cosmic significance to the present moment, helping us realize what time it is. It is, as today’s readings declare, the moment for us to wake from sleep. It is the moment for us to prepare for nothing less than the coming of the Lord.
We cannot have the Christmas celebration we are meant to have—a heartfelt embrace of the new-born King—unless we have in mind that the end will come, that we will actually encounter him, crucified and risen. We will meet him face to face at the end of the world as we know it and also at the end of our earthly lives. This joyful reality, for which we hope through faith, should inform all our Advent and Christmas observances. Let us not be content with a merely sentimental approach to the holidays—a gazing at the baby in the manger that does not challenge us and bring us to a new place in our relationship with God and others. This is a time for ending old ways that do not give life and for seeking the living Christ who has come, and who will come at the end to be our judge and our friend, a friend who freely gives us nothing less than the immeasurable love of God, which is life itself. We are called to wake up to this wonderful good news so that Christmas and our lives beyond it will be anything but ordinary, sleepy, and routine.
It helps to remember that our time here is limited, that it will come to an end. Just as we have only four weeks until Christmas, we have only a certain number of weeks left on this earth. I’m not trying to be morbid, but just realistic, with of course the hope of the resurrection in mind. If I, for example, live to the age my mother was when she died (and she didn’t die young), I have only 16 years left on this earth. Needless to say, that’s not very long. Come to that, neither is 25 or 30 more years. Of course there’s no guarantee that any of us will be here in body the next time Advent rolls around. Christ will come, the Scriptures tell us, when we least expect it.
If we don’t live with that reality, in hope rather than fear, we are not fully living. Psalm 90 helps put our situation in perspective. It is not used at funerals much anymore because it is mistakenly seen as too somber, but it gets to the heart of the matter when, after reflecting on our mortality, it prays, “so teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
The wise, like the wise men at the Epiphany, make the most of their time, knowing that present opportunities will not always be available. This involves waking up to past shortcomings—to the fact that, as the traditional prayer puts it, “we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” We have lived, in other words, as if we didn’t know what time it is, and for that we are called to repent, to turn and go in another direction, with God’s help. To make a right beginning, we must put an end to foolish, careless ways and seize the day, in whatever ways God directs.
Until the age of 40, I lived, like many, as if I had all the time in the world. I did manage to do some good and important things—I had loving relationships; I delighted in my studies; I enjoyed engaging in intellectual quests with my history students—I even took pleasure in attending church. But the year after I turned 40, I began to feel that something was missing. Just the fact of turning 40 focused my mind and made me realize that I wouldn’t be around forever. That same year, a dear grandmother died, who had done much to shape my identity and to lead me closer to Christ, in the context of the Episcopal Church. It was a wake-up time when I began to realize that, good as my life had been in many ways, I was called to something else, to something more. I began to realize that if I didn’t seriously consider going into the ordained ministry and, ultimately, if I didn’t pursue it, I would be, in effect, missing the boat; I would be dilly-dallying and indulging myself, rather than engaging fully with God and doing what I was called to do to fulfill his purpose for me, and for the Church and world around me. “Wake, awake,” the Spirit said, “for night is flying ... .” It is time to get ready for the end. It is time to prepare for your encounter with the living God. Many of you have had your own versions of this call story.
Of course following our callings is never easy. Change in a new direction usually entails sacrifice and even suffering. It involves launching into the unknown and going beyond our comfort zone. Yet in following God’s call, however crazy that may seem, we are taking the road that leads to fullness of life and peace. According to Frederick Buechner, “the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done... . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” By reminding us that time is short, Advent helps us focus on making changes which, while sometimes painful, will be life-giving to ourselves and others.
In our efforts to listen anew to God’s call this Advent, it is useful to think prayerfully about what, in popular terms, is called a “bucket list.” I’m not talking about a list of pleasures to fit in before our flesh melts away. I’m thinking of what we must do in order to feel, at the end of our lives, that we have not missed out, that we have used our precious time and energy to do and be what gives the most life to us and to those around us.
With that in mind this year, I’m committing myself to a little Advent discipline. Every day of the season, I plan simply to contact, with a card or an e-mail message or a phone call, someone God has put in my life but with whom I have been too out-of-touch. Nothing is more important, under God, than the people God has given us to love. This season is a time to get outside ourselves, reaching out to others. If that means we have to cut corners with our decorating or cooking or shopping, then so be it. First things first, Advent tells us.
Ultimately, our time here, however much we have left, is not about checking things off a list or doing a certain amount. It is about letting God prepare our hearts for fuller, eternal Communion with him, through the grace and mercy of his Son, and in the fellowship of the Spirit. How we relate to our brothers and sisters and to creation as a whole is central to that preparation. As we try to perceive and pursue our callings, God is working to bring us where God wants us to be. And thanks to his redeeming love and power, we won’t have to worry about there being any unfinished business.