Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
Year B ~ November 30, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
O that you would rend the heavens and come down!
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
xistentialism ~ so popular in
my youth ~ recognizes no meaning in human life or in the universe in general;
no answer to the "why?" that we human beings seem to be hard-wired to
ask. we can't help it, and we keep doing it even when we are well-educated
existentialists; even when we KNOW that there is no "why". And it's
laughable, absurd as they say. And we know it. Still, we keep on looking
for and finding meaning anyway.
And what is true of our individual lives is also true of history - all the more so. Definitely no meaning there, and the attempt to find it there ends in the concentration camps of Hitler and Stalin ~ both of whom represented major attempts to find meaning in history. All there is is ME and my inevitable DEATH and whatever reason I can find for not killing myself. That's it. That's all there is.
There can be a kind of stoical nobility in this view of reality. There can also be a certain smugness ~ a kind of pride in being strong enough to look meaninglessness in the face without flinching. People who are proud of their existential courage have a disinclination ~ almost a horror of slipping into some fantasy of meaning. Jean-Paul Sartres, the great postwar philosopher, confided that he had once come alarmingly close to what he supposed was an experience of God. It really frightened him ~ not because, as scripture says, "it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God", but because he knew that he was teetering on the isolated pinnacle of his ruthless, uncompromising meaninglessness, about to slip off into the comforting fantasies of lesser men. (Fortuneately, he recovered!)
But then, there are religious existentialists, too. People like Tillich and the Maritains, and Dostoyevsky, and Kirkegaard ~ and maybe all of us who confront our own doubts and decide to believe in spite of them. The most succinct expression of this leap of faith that I know of is found in a letter of Dostoyevsky,who wrote with fittingly Russian, over-the-top extravagance:
I believe that there is nothing lovlier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Savior; I say to myself with jealous love than not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would say even more. if anyone could prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I would prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.
If Christ is not reality, then to hell with reality and also with all of your "heroism" of life without meaning. In accepting Christ as Dostoyevsky did, one also accepts the notion that history is meaningful; not just a meaningless recurrence of cycles, like the seasons of the year, but a meaningful journey from one place to someplace else. It is fashionable nowadays to sneer at such a "linear" view of history: to believe that a cyclical view is better because it more "natural" or even more "feminine". Well, maybe so. Maybe it IS more natural. It IS what we observe in nature: cycles. Endless cycles, in saecula saeculorum. This is why all pagan religions also take a cyclical view of history, including the most highly-developed ~ the towering achievements of Brahmanist and Buddhist philosophy. That is also why these philosophies are ultimately existential. It is also one reason modern existentialists like Zen.
But biblical revelation is directional: we move FROM Egypt TOWARD the promised Land. The journey isn't that much fun, and we often wish we had stayed put, slaves in the land of eternal return, where at least we had enough to eat. But we didn't and we can't go back. We are on our way. We are going somewhere, even if we do not know exactly where, and we are notngoing around in circles. There is meaning in our effort. Even though it be encrypted in tablets of stone, the meaning is not exactly clear ~ we share that with the existentialists ~ but unlike many of them, we are willing to affirm that the whole thing IS meaningful, if only in the End.
Which brings me, at last, to Advent, the Church’s Season of the End. The Ordinary Time of cyclical seasons is past, that aptly-named season after Pentecost, the “mean” time, the time after the illapse of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ, that ordinary time, which seems as though it will last forever IS coming to an end. The world as we know it is over. We don't know what lies ahead. It is terrifying: the sun and moon going dark, stars falling to earth, all the familiar cosmic realities crumbling. These apocalyptic images, along with the dark mourning purple of the seasonal color, are ways of getting us to recognize that whatever the End may be, it will certainly NOT be anything we expect.
A stiff does of existential stoicism may be salutary here: please don't settle for comforting or titillating fantasies about rapture and escape from this world and its judgment. When we cry "O that you would rend the heavens and come down," we need to remember the very next verse: "You did awesome deeds that WE DID NOT EXPECT." Advent refines the paradox to the ultimate degree: we are to keep watch for that which cannot be looked for, we are to expect that which cannot be expected. The great Collect for Advent, surely one of the most majestic and exalted in all our tradition, the first prayer of the Church year is all about the End of Time. It is full of the Holy Contradiction that aims to break us out of our Pharaonic slavery to every-day, cyclical consciousness and to lead us out into the vast, empty, desert that holds the Promise of Meaning in the awful encounter with God:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.