Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pouting toward the eschaton

Three images for today:

  • Rex Harrison mouthing "When will you make an end?" to Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstacy, whereupon he mouths back "When I am finished!"
  • The latest issue of Trinity News, from Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street in New York in which a column quotes a woman's near death experience: "I remember I knew that everything everywhere in the universe was okay, that the plan was perfect. That whatever was happening--the wars, famine, whatever--was okay. Everything was perfect. Somehow it was all part of an infinite being in perfection."
  • The gospel proclamation from this morning's midweek Eucharist: "Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest." A more contemporary reading of the "comfortable words" from the Rite I and 1928 versions of the Eucharistic liturgy: a promise from Christ that whoever approaches will not only be welcomed...they will also be consoled.
I need to hear and see all of those images as I begin to prepare for preaching the Christmas liturgies, as we prepare as a parish to enter a new year of life in Christ. Too often, in the hubbub and run up to the Christmas holidays, I find myself focusing on the Christ of the Christmas pageant. Be honest, it is easy. In churches with pageant Sundays and a "live baby Jesus" (usually the newest baby in the parish done up in some swaddling and, God willing, engaged in a bout of angelic napping during the performance), the experience of heartwarming and soul-comforting grace is most welcome indeed. We are reminded of the consolation of God that is incarnate in the freshness of new birth. For just a moment, time seems to freeze and that stasis is a welcome break from hectic living. A baby has come to us. His name is Immanuel, "God with us." Even the angels pause in their bustling administration of heaven's mandate in order to see, behold and adore. For me, most often, that is Christmas.

But I am forgetting something else about the Christmas image that Advent demands us pay attention to: that Christ in all forms comes to us not only to console and to refresh, but also to challenge and to lead.

The refreshment is not the thing itself. It is the moment of rest and preparation before something else begins to happen, to us, in our lives and through us in the life of the world yearning for an active God.

Many evangelical traditions spend a great deal of time wondering about the end of time. When Christ comes for the second, and presumably final, time, then all of this existence will roll up. The sets will be struck. The proverbial trucks pulled up to the portals of space and time for a celestial load out. Everything, and everyone in this world will be brought before the judgment seat of God. It will all get sorted out. That image is both exhilarating and terrifying. God will not only make a beginning and see us through the middle. God will also make an end. For some, that will mean oblivion and obliteration, and for others (the lucky few who have kept their slates clean and salvation secure), heaven's everlasting rewards.

I don't think it is that easy. If scripture is to be believed (and I took and oath to that effect, so caveat emptor, friends--I preach the party line ;) or at least I struggle to!), then that end time is always unfolding. What is promised is both God's impending entrance into time and space...and the imminence of that presence SOON.

What does that mean for THIS Christmas? That it is not just about baby Jesus, or some abstract super-JC come at the end of the age. Too easy. This Christmas, every Christmas, is about recognizing that God is capable, intent upon and actually about to do a new thing. God is always challenging the status quo, both for us as individuals and for us as the Body of Christ.

That idea is quite unsettling, as it pulls us out of our comfort zone, if such a zone can truly exist in the presence of the Holy One. Imagine a world, and a life lived, without a comfort zone. Without the opportunity to rest into stasis. Imagine a life in which you and I are called continually into God and into that new thing that is about to happen. Immanuel is both immanent and imminent in our lives. So, those comfortable words from this morning? They console, form and challenge us. God welcomes us into God's favor and rest...and then sends us out to do that new thing that is always being promised.

When will it end? When it is finished!

So, Christmas is MORE that just going through life converted to a soft and open heart, a la Ebenezer Scrooge. It is more than seeing a majestic tannenbaum in Charlie Brown's twig. It is more that perceiving gift and grace in Rudolph's glowing nose birth defect. It is about being willing to step out in faith with the realization that the new thing God is planning for the world is US! That our witness and ministry are both the means and the end of God's kingdom wish for this breaking world. The light that shines in the darkness is NOT a 40 watt bulb wrapped in muslin. It is us stealing into the silent night in order to carry our lamps to the ends of time and space, proclaiming NOW in God, in Christ, in life.

Or something like that...certainly puts the worries and woes of Budget-tide into perspective--it doesn't let up on the pressure, but it does begin to refresh it.

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