A questioning time

Advent a time for remembering as well as anticipation
December 1, 2005

Advent, we say, is a time of waiting. What we don't always say is that it's also a time of questioning, a time of standing on the brink and wondering what will come and deciding how we will deal with it.

From the very beginning, the human species seems to have had an innate need to honor something beyond itself. We don't know what god -- or gods -- those early Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons worshipped. We do know that some of the earliest human graves contain the dust of flowers, that from prehistoric times men and women were laid to rest with the tools and ornaments they had used in life. By the time we got around to inventing writing -- and therefore to recording -- our history, myths and rituals already had been handed down by word of mouth through countless generations.

We of the Judeo-Christian heritage have been especially fortunate; the leap to a monotheistic faith ensured that our sacred stories, so carefully preserved by storytellers and scribes, do not deal with the intramural doings of competitive gods but, much more realistically, with God's interaction with humanity. We therefore have -- even on a merely secular level -- a priceless record of the development of a faith tradition over many millennia.

We don't know how far back some of those Old Testament stories may go, though references to "knives of stone" and "giants in the earth" are powerfully suggestive, and it seems possible that the story of Abraham and Isaac marks a pre-literate transition from human to animal sacrifice. We can never know these things with any certainty; what we can see quite clearly in these records is the step-by-step progress of a religion. Human institutions being what they are (and God, we believe, refusing to interfere with our freewill), some of the steps have been bad and some have been good, and there are long periods where nothing much at all seems to be happening.

Jesus apparently was born into such a time. Judaism was in a period where it was ruled by a hierarchy of temple priests, so entrenched and so embattled that even a dusty-footed itinerant preacher was seen as a threat -- and rightly so.

This is what we don't always seem to remember: how much of a threat he was. It was as if a shabby provincial pastor trudged in from the countryside and told the powers that be at the Vatican or Canterbury or the Moscow Patriarchate that it was time to make a change. "The Sabbath was made for man," he said. "There are only two commandments," he said. "Love God. Love one another." And his followers shouted in the streets.

I think it's especially good to remember these things in Advent, for this is a indeed a time when nothing much seems to be happening, a time when the richness and potentiality of human experience sleeps hidden in darkness as the acorn sleeps in the earth.

The world, we understand now, waited for the birth of Christ. It did not know it was waiting, nor could it have dreamed what it was waiting for. No one of that time could have imagined the massive reshaping of human thought, human history, human spirit what was coming with the birth of a single child -- a reshaping that continues to this day, a reshaping some still see as a threat.

So in a sense our time, too, is an Advent time. Something is ending. Something is coming to birth. Some of us may welcome it and some may reject it, but there's little chance any of us will understand it, and none of us will comprehend its movement through the millennia to come.

We do the only thing we can do. We wait in faith. We question in faith. We dream in faith.

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