Consider the confusions of the calendar: shops put up Xmas displays before Hallowe'en, and have "Xmas music" blaring from the speakers by early November. A few stores are still judicious, and wait at least until All Saint's Day to put out the glitter and bows, but they are a distinct minority. A shopping season that used to wait until the day after Thanksgiving is already well underway at least a week before, if not earlier. It is only the vast overworked "working class" that clog the stores on the last Friday in November. The rest are people trying to get family out of the house on a day with no football games, in a country largely bereft of any other cultural venues.
Or maybe that's just the view from Houston.
The liturgical calendar offers more bewilderment, if anybody other than a few priests actually paid attention to it. The "church" year ended Sunday, amid talk of apocalypse and terror and eschatological justice. Just the day for a baptism, which I all but stumbled into at the 5 p.m. service. Ironies abound. The new year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, the anticipation of the Christchild which will mean the end of time and God's new beginning. Something which is celebrated every year about this time, as they cycle of the year spins once again around. Confusions abound, too.
The covenental kingdom's sublime perfection is the eschatological or eutopian kingdom and the eschatological kingdom's imminent advent is the apocalyptic kingdom. They are on a continuum from ideal good (covenant) to perfect best (eschatology) and from distant hope (eschatology) to proximate presence (apocalypse). The further the present kingdom of God deviated from normal good, teh more some people looked to ideal best. The further that ideal deviated from present now, the more some poeple looked to future soon. An apocalypse is a "revelation" about that "ending" of evil and injustuce as coming soon, very soon, right now almost. Without some continuity from covenantal to eschatological Kingdom of God, the content of an apocalyptic kingdom becomes an open question or an empty expectation.--John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) p. 115.
"The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."--Jacques Derrida
These, by the way, were the scriptures read at the baptism Sunday evening:
At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet."Mark 13:1-8
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.Not that it mattered, to be perfectly honest: most of the family there were clearly unfamiliar with church, and treated it as a public theater: i.e., a place to stand about and talk until the lights dim and you hasten to take your seats to watch the show. Most of them displayed no sense of the behaviour expected in an Episcopal setting, and stood up to leave as soon as the priest had walked out (we regulars know to wait for the dousing of the candles. It was conducted that Sunday in something of a scrum as the "audience" resumed their conversations interrupted by the start of the "show"). So these words didn't mean much to them; just more of what "church is about," and another reason why they don't usually attend (it's not always due to pomp and circumstance, in other words).
That's a touchy issue in many way. In the medieval church, the doors were usually open (the windows were sealed, you know) and dogs and cats probably came in and out rather more freely than our post-Victorian sensibilities would like to imagine. People weren't too clean, either, and milled about rather than sat in family pews (I've been to a few European cathedrals, and I'm quite sure the folding chairs were not original equipment). Reminiscent of Bertie Wooster's Great Sermon Handicap (and if you haven't read Wodehouse on country parishes, stop and so so now. I can't help you if you are so benighted as that.), some people used to race from Mass to Mass for the epiclesis, the point when the priest raises the host and asks God to bless it. This, per Catholic doctrine, was the moment of transubstantiation, a regularly performed miracle that, some thought, it would be a blessing to witness. It is, after all, the true presence of God. So add to your imagining of great cathedrals full of people small packs darting in for the epiclesis, and then dashing off to the next chapel lickety-split.
It wasn't always about cry rooms and sitting dead-still for an hour without snoring. So I don't condemn these vistors (though I sound as if I do); but there is a time and a purpose to everything under heaven, and we have become so focussed on time we can no longer tell what time it is. Or, as Jesus said, we can read the signs of the heavens, but not the signs of the times. Which is something the church comes back to every year about this time. As Jacques said, the figure of the circle will obsess us in these lectures. So, are we just going 'round and 'round, making the same motions, expecting the same comfortable results?
What if Advent this year were a true shattering of the vessels? What if the nature of God overflowed everything and fell into our lives? What would we do then? Bake Christmas cookies? Sing age-worn carols? Wrap packages in shiny paper? "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" There's a reason we end the church year with those questions, and often begin Advent with them again. We are always looking for explanations, for predictions, for knowledge that will make the new familiar and, so, comfortable for us. But just like Daniel, Mark was speaking to his contemporaries in Jesus' reply. Daniel writes from the experience of the Babylonian Exile; Mark from the experience of the fall of Jerusalem to Rome, the extermination of Temple worship that led to rabbinic Judaism. They both write out of cataclysm.
Our leaders show us, time and again, that none of us here truly understand cataclysm. What sense do these words have for us, then?
I think, this:
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.Condi Rice used this language to justify the war in Iraq; but that is arrogance and ignorance speaking. Jesus doesn't tell us to be in charge of events; he says events will seem to be in charge of us. The will-to-power of the evangelical leaders, of any person who thinks they can shape the zeitgeist, is not given a how-to manual here. This is something altogether different. Daniel echoes it, too:
There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.These are words of hope, but they are a realistic hope. Daniel doesn't promise exemption, he promises justice. "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth...Those who are wise." Justice restores, justice doesn't protect. Justice breaks the cycle of the calendar. Justice is the gift. And its coming is heralded by wars and kingdoms rising against kingdoms, and earthquakes in various places, and famine; and those are just the birthpangs. Imagine what the rest is like. This is not the gift anyone expects, or can expect. We expect power to bring peace, war to bring justice, destruction to bring consent. We expect fighting to lead to victory, and victory to pax. Whenever we seek peace by our own means, by the exertion of our own power, we seek pax, but not shalom. Pax is the peace enforced by power; shalom is the peace of God, which passes all understanding. Shalom is the gift that breaks the cycle of exchange. Shalom is the gift which cannot be foreseen, cannot even be received. It truly comes in spite of us, and apart from us, and yet it is given to us, or it isn't a gift at all.
Consider the confusion of the calendar. Every year we start again, every year the calendar repeats the same events; and we take comfort in it. If something unfamiliar occurs, rather than open ourselves to it in reverence and respect and silence, we are apt to act as if we were familiar with this, too, and we chatter to our friends and family until something we recognize happens, and we react as we think we are expected to react, and once again the new passes by us, doesn't penetrate, doesn't get in. And so we start the cycle again, giving and receiving, balancing the books, making sure every offer is met by acceptance, every opportunity for contract is engaged and fulfilled. And the new comes back around again, offers us another chance to stop, to listen, to hear. For the new is always and ever new, even if we are always and ever the same, and prefer it that way.
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.The gift that shatters the cycle of time is coming. The gift we least expected and never expect again, is being repeated. The season that opens our eyes to that gift is coming around again, ever the same, ever new again. Paradoxes abound; so does confusion. Blessed are those who don't even know it has come, for they shall be the first to receive it.