Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent - to wrest with mystery, and rest in mystery

"Arise! Shine! Your light has come." Light exposing the ultimate nothingness of darkness is a primary colour in my advent theology. "The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not..." The King James rendering has a cadence and tone solemn enough to remind us we deal with the vast intricacies of a universe when we say "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...and the life was the light of all humanity".

1903039541.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_Throughout Advent I will be slowly reading my way through Rebecca Elson's A Responsibility to Awe. So I'll spend Advent in the company of one who made no bland confessions of faith, Christian or otherwise. What Rebecca Elson trusted deeply, is the capacity of the human mind to wrest with mystery as hard and as long as intelligence could go, and then she had the confidence to rest in mystery, awed into acceptance by that which is beyond our grasp but not beyond our wonder.

Thus some of the most spectacularly learned scientific essays and papers emerged from the same mind as some of the most sublime poetry offered in praise of the vastness of existence and the delicate fragility of the human mind. Wresting with, and resting in, mystery. That's how I feel during Advent. The poet astronomer studying stars to discern the origins of being, and setting her mind to measure the range of human intelligence, content to know beforehand that what is, is greater than those who ponder it.

The poem which gives the volume its title is a confession of intellectual humility, a surrender to the ethic of learning, both a celebration and a caution about how the fascination of science can so easily lead to missing the significant because we are too preoccupied with the obvious. This Advent, that is my prayer - to not miss that which is significant, in my own life and in the lives around me. To "wonder as I wander", to look where I'm going, to listen for vibrations of human hopefulness and good intent that is the music around me, to ask questions deep enough that they honour mystery and acknowledge that divine subterfuge by which God perlexes, bewilders and persuades us that love is eternal, and has entered our time and space. Answering the wistfulness of Elson's poem, the astonishing claim, "In him was light, and the light was the life of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to extinguish it...."

We Astronomers by Rebecca Elson
We astronomers are nomads,
Merchants, circus people,
All the earth our tent.
We are industrious.
We breed enthusiasms,
Honour our responsibility to awe.

But the universe has moved a long way off.
Sometimes, I confess,
Starlight seems too sharp,

And like the moon
I bend my face to the ground,
To the small patch where each foot falls,

Before it falls,
And I forget to ask questions,
And only count things.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Advent Shaking

"...the celestial powers will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory." Luke 21:26-27

The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary, in assigning this text for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C), seem to be deliberately wrong-footing us. We are expecting to prepare for the coming of Christ as the infant Jesus; instead we are confronted with predictions of the return of the glorious Son of Man. This return, it is claimed, will be preceded by a shaking of earth and heaven. Our planet, with its land-masses, waters, mountains, ravines and craters, is living testament to an ongoing shaking as tectonic plates move and asteroids collide. This ball of magma with its hardened crust and breathable atmosphere, rotating and orbiting in space, is always moving and changing. The shaking of which Jesus speaks, however, is different than this perpetual motion. It is the shaking that God causes; a shaking that coincides with the Advent of the Son of Man.

If, as interpreters of this text, we move from the literal to metaphor, we find that shaking is not restricted to Christ's return but is part of what God does with his people. God shook Israel's moral and religious order out of idolatry and polytheism when God made covenant with it and gave it the Law. God shook Israel further through foreign exile and occupation. But perhaps the greatest shaking occurred in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; a shaking of the very foundations of what it means to be in right relationship with God. Andrew Shanks interprets the Beatitude blessings that Jesus pronounces as, 'How blessed are those who are shaken'. In other words, how blessed are those whose attitude to being shaken in life (poverty, sorrow, gentleness, seeking righteousness, merciful, pure, peacemaking, persecuted) makes them open to God and to others. But those who hate change, except on their own terms, would not tolerate shaking of this sort and therefore nailed down the one who so unsettled them. As Colin Morris writes, " crucifying Jesus the 'powers that be' imagined they were doing one thing; in fact they were being used to accomplish another. They became instruments of the God who shook the tomb until it fell apart and let loose his great agent of change into all the world and for all time.” (pp. 157-8, Things Shaken - Things Unshaken)

We who identify with the incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended and returning Christ—we who worship the God who is Spirit and is therefore 'pure activity'—cannot avoid being shaken. Yet we are given courage and hope by the author of The Letter to the Hebrews, who writes that after God has finished shaking "...what cannot be shaken [will] remain. The kingdom we are given is unshakeable…" Hebrews 12:27b-28a