Normalcy means we are all basically in the same boat, and that boat is not particularly exceptional. We can talk about hope as we should, hope in something better and grander. But that lies outside this middle time, and only by crossing the threshold of the bookends will hope emerge in its fullness.
Does it make sense to invite us to immerse ourselves in our deepest dissatisfactions? Yet, for 4 weeks in Advent, this is exactly what we do as a people.
While all around us, the lights, the bells, the “good cheer”, telling us to feel happy and spend money; all is well with the economy and with us. But for 4 weeks, as a Christian people, we say, “in our souls we know better: it is not well with us”.
“Present your bodies as living sacrifices”, St. Paul says today. Well, who does that? “Here’s my body, Lord, it’s yours.”
We can think of servants, of transplant donors, literally, of soldiers, of firemen and policemen, of parents in a way, of martyrs. But what of you and me?
Jesus sends us out. We have work to do that he gives us, work in our lives, in our contexts, in our world. It’s standard to say this, of course. But it’s hard, in practice, to figure it out: we are not apostles, after all, going about from town to town preaching. We have families, jobs, projects, concerns, health issues, worries. “Every one has a ministry” sounds good; but why would that actually be the case, given all we have to do just to be normal people? More than that, the very notion of a “Christian” ministry doesn’t fit the vastness of our, to be honest, non-Christian lives, with all their compelling demands. It’s not surprising the Christian ministry tends to be specialized, taken up by a few who have both the time, focus, and peculiar (perhaps even somewhat aberrant) passions for preaching, teaching, talking about Jesus, worrying about religious practices and beliefs. Yet, we are told rightly by Scripture and Church: you have a ministry.
In our society, we have freedom to speak…More than anywhere and at any time, North Americans can say whatever they like. The result is that everything we say ends up being a reflection of, well, “whatever we like”, that is “just me”. You are free to say “what you want”: well, what is that? Exactly what I want. Just me. I’ m not supposed to say what other people want me to say; or to say what I was taught to say; or to say what God wants me to say. I am supposed to say what I want to say. This is a profound problem.
Jesus says that if you endure and hang in there you shall own your own life. It is yours. That’s the paradox: endurance is about resting in the fact that your life is bound to God; yet in being bound to God, your life becomes your own!
“To be sure, every thread of evil is to be named, traced through, engaged – gun control, families, mental health, hatred, political tyranny. Trace it; work against it. We all are called to do this, wherever we are – in our societies, families, self-ordering. But the threads are legion; and only the Lord of all the legions of the universe can summon them and disperse them.”
What gets me about Ananias and Paul is how this isn’t just about getting over something; or about resolving an infinitely complex strain in a relationship. It isn’t even about the hard work of reconciliation. This is something where the whole set of relationships explodes. Ananias doesn’t do anything, except obey God; and Paul – well, he is simply, but profoundly kicked off his horse, blinded, and overwhelmed by the Lord’s own thundering presence and calling. What completely challenges me here is that this is about God at work, not about me at work. And that is both frightening, and breathtaking in its freeing possibility.
The voice of the rocks, then, with which this drama opens as a hint, points to something profound; to a deep-down thing that is going on and that encircles us and founds our steps, and echoes in our ears … The deep-down thing is real; and real, I think for everyone. There is yearning for the king. A yearning so deep, that it seeps out even from the seams of the earth’s crust, just as from the joints of tired people. Maybe that yearning crosses the chasm between Christian Church and not-Church.
In one English popular telling of the story, the three shepherds are named Col, Gil and Dave. They sit around in the night time, all alone on the empty hills, and complain amongst themselves about their lives – typical maybe, but lives whose pititful and hard edges are just what makes a human person both a person and a question. Sometimes it’s the general grumbling of worn out impatience, as Gil mutters:
“Lord, this weather’s to spite us, the wind is so keen and frost so hideous, it makes my eyes stream, No lie.”
Gil is cold and tired. That’s the point: of course the shepherds had names, because tonight is about right here: Sam or Sarah; John or Jennifer. Your names. That is who this is all for – you and me. Here and now, tonight. And all the little things we live and thus bring with us tonight: the fussing around bedtime with children; the dishes; the work still left undone and waiting until Monday, not going anywhere; the argument with your mother; the nagging illness or gnawing pain; the broken sister or alcoholic cousin; the uncertainty of this or that; the happy hug or disappointed visit. “Quoi-donc, Colin, ne sais-tu pas, Qu’un Dieu vient de naitre ici-bas?” – what, Colin, don’t you realize that God is now born right down here?
Right here. So the Shepherds have names.