I spent the last two days completely avoiding my blank screen, in spite of there being a whole pile of work I intended to do, for the bitter reason that on Friday morning we learned that the last of our—and I do hate this word—“shut-ins” died sometime on Thanksgiving day. I don’t really feel equal to writing about it because this person was, well, is an essential kind of person. She was the one who scooped up my first, and eventually, all of my babies as I came flying into the church building every Sunday morning, my high heels clacking over the polished linoleum, my huge bag spilling all my junk over the clean, orderly nursery. It was she who kept them fed and happy—first with baby mush, then with chocolate milk and sugary wafer cookies—while Matt and I ran from one end of life to the other, she who babysat during interminable late-night vestry meetings, she who was an unwavering and calm and steady presence during all our Anglican wars…actually, I can’t say any more because I have to get through church today somehow.
So anyway, along with Isaiah, I’m going to go ahead and plead:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known among your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
It is the first day of the new church year, which lets me out of 2020, I think. Contemplating the return of Jesus “in clouds with great power and glory” feels to me like the decently sane and obvious thing to do. I particularly like the line, “to make your name known to your adversaries,” the chief one being death himself, who continues to snatch and grab and claw his way along, pulling us down to the grave one by one. He is defeated already, and yet so am I—crushed to earth, unable to raise my head. “We all fade like a life, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
This is always the point in the year when I revel in the sharp contrast between the garish lights of the world and the still, cosmic sobriety of Christ coming into the world—unobtrusively, so that no one notices him until the way of peace between me and God has been so fixed that even I am not able to ruin it. Meditating on the final and complete action of God to remake a world that is already conquered, already won, makes all the tinsel and stress more bearable. Now more than ever.
Especially this line—“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been for a long time, and shall we be saved?”—which must be a perfect and pithy “reason for the season.” Yes, we shall be saved, and saved from that which is the truest and most threatening trouble, the incontrovertible reality that the wage of sin is death, every single time, but the free gift of God is eternal life.
Still, my “lived reality” is the feeling that I am just rearranging deck chairs on my own private titanic, refashioning my lists day after day as if somehow accomplishing all the things will push some looming doom—my own and everyone else’s—back a few minutes. Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, diagnosis this ceaseless striving as some sort of immortality project. We show up for our lives and that’s the best we can do. Whether you rush out into the front lines of a battle, or write a book, or decide to get up and deal with the relentless anxiety nipping at your heels, you’re participating in the great quest to be immortal. This quest is a heroic one–to existentially face facts must certainly be. Unless the chief fact—God himself—entirely evades your notice.
And truly, heroism is not the word I would use to describe the huddled, bleating group of disciples Jesus addresses as he strolls around the walls of Jerusalem, looking out over that great city, warning them—and us—of what is to come. He commands each one to “be on guard,” and to “keep awake.” Not only because death might strike, but because he, “like a man going on a journey” might “come suddenly and find you asleep.” You might be out buying another packet of phone chargers because every single one has so frayed that you have to twist it around to make it work, and suddenly the Lord will appear and you didn’t even know that was on the schedule. You were “asleep” in a thousand different ways.
It must, then, be God’s mercy that this is the year we’ve been “fed with the bread of tears” and been given “plenteous tears to drink”—that foaming cup of wine we each drink down to the dregs, only to find at the bottom that it was full of the fellowship of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.