Written By Ryan Turnbull
In My Beginning is My End
The famous poem, “East Coker” written, in the early years of the Second World War, by the great poet laureate, TS Eliot contains a stanza most fitting for our service today:
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
We come to this first Sunday in Advent, the first day of the Christian Calendar, in the midst of a pandemic that is raging out of control. Over 1.4 million people have died already of this disease, 12 thousand of those deaths have been Canadians and over 250 of those are here in Manitoba. Large numbers of deaths are hard to comprehend, rather than tragedies we experience them as statistics. But 250 dead Manitobans is as if my entire hometown had been wiped off the map this year. That is a lot of pain, a lot of grief, and a lot of people who have had to bear that suffering alone for the sake of the safety of others.
Today is the first day of Advent, and as I noted, it is the beginning of the Christian year. Some of you may only know Advent as the time when you get little chocolates from an Advent Calendar (which I hasten to emphasize, there is absolutely no shame in!). Often, churches engage in a practice of lighting candles and hearing reflections on Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope, which is a powerful ritual of welcoming these gifts of the spirit into the life of the church as we await the great gift of the Christ child. But today I want to turn our attention to a more ancient advent tradition. As Eliot goes on to say in the poem I opened with, “in my beginning is my end” and it is that insight, that endings and beginnings are always tied together, that the ancient Church intuited when it developed its tradition of observing the Four Last things during this liturgical season.
The Four Last things of Adventide are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Therefore it is fitting that the beginning of our Advent season, a season in which we wait for new beginnings in the anticipation of the birth of the Lord of Life, is the time when we take a moment to reflect on the first of the Four Last Things… Death. Death is hard to talk about, and it’s harder still when we are surrounded by so much of it. At the best of times, death is ubiquitous, but during a pandemic, we are daily bombarded by images and reports of death. There is an irrationality to it, we try to say something, but ultimately we find that we are left, as Eliot says, “with the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.” There is a reason we talk about the silence of the grave, it is not that the dead do not speak, for indeed their voices cry out to us loudly. The silence of the grave is primarily that we are reduced to an inarticulate silence in the face of the horror of death.
The Faith and the Love and Hope are all in the Waiting
Returning to Eliot:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
Advent is a season of waiting. Our Scripture readings reference waiting on the day of the Lord’s coming. Isaiah anticipates quaking mountains, burning brushwood and boiling waters. Mark warns that neither angels nor humans know when the day will come, but advises us, much like the 10 virgins from a couple weeks ago, to remain awake and vigilant.
I remember an occasion in seminary where we were talking about how Christians deal with suffering, and one overly zealous student asked, “So, the church seems to always grow historically when it suffers, do you think we should start praying for more suffering?” Heads started to nod around the class from the other students, but at that moment, the professor interjected with a loud, “NO! We do not pray that suffering will come. Suffering always comes, we do not need to be busying ourselves with asking God for more of it. The question is, how we are going to respond to it when it does come.” I should say, this was not some pie-in-the-sky academic talking, but a man who had known more than his fair share of struggles, and had, in his work as a pastor, walked alongside the sufferings of many of his parishioners. He knew that when it comes to suffering, we do not know what we are talking about, and that it is sometimes for the best that what cannot be spoken should be passed over in silence (cf. Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 23). I’ve reflected a lot on that exchange over the years, and especially this year during the pandemic. Nobody prayed for this to come, but we were warned that things like this would come before the end.
The Day of the Lord, Mark’s gospel tells us, is a hidden event because it is arrival of the One who is the Hidden One. In my first sermon to you this fall, I used Robert Jenson’s description of God, that God is “Whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel from Egypt.” If you listen carefully to that formulation, you realize that the operative word is “Whoever” God is precisely not named or identified in a way that might make us think that we have figured God out. God is the great I Am who I Am, or I will Be who I will Be. “Whoever” names a God that makes Godself known in salvific acts for us but is not known as a someone that we’ve “figured out.” Thus, Mark’s warning to stay awake. Who can know the time or date of this God’s coming? The Magi, those great learned men of the east, they watched the heavens for signs and were prepared for the coming of the Lord when none of the great men of Israel were, but even they were caught unawares by the manner of Christ’s coming. Who brings those kinds of gifts to a boy in a feed trough?
So, in Advent, we learn to accept a posture of waiting and wrestling. Death and suffering may surround us, but the day of the Lord is not yet here. We might scream our questions of WHY, WHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN to the heavens, but God, in God’s gracious mercy will not become the Object of our questioning, for God always wills to meet us as the Subject who is for us. And so we wait.
Into a deeper communion
We begin this time of waiting by attending to our ends. But in so doing, we discover that there are limits to our powers. Our inarticulacy in the face of death, our inability to know when, or where, or how the end will come all reinforce the fundamental fact of our existence that we are not gods. Humans occupy a sort of middle space in the cosmos. We have great power to transform the world around us, for good and for evil. We can work for the good of our city, and we can be the very source of the ills of that city. But our middling view also means that our existence has some very real limits. I have repeatedly quoted Eliot’s admonishment to wait without faith or hope or love, not because these things are bad, but because it is our lot not to know how to direct these gifts.
This, finally, is the grace of Adventide. Advent is a time to wait, to wait without hope, faith, or love, because they would ultimately be for the wrong things. But in the waiting, in the watching, in the careful attentiveness to fig leaves and the movements of stars, we discover that in fact there is a more excellent gift of faith and hope and love to be had. In advent, we enter into the way of ignorance, for of ourselves, we cannot know God. We cannot know God, but our God is the God who wills to be known. Our God is the God Who Will Be Who He Will Be. In taking time to wait, to accept the way of ignorance, we can make room for that great “Whoever” to make itself known to us. And at the end of all our waiting, we discover that the God who is for us, is the God who makes such an intimate communion possible that he becomes Emmanuel. O come, O come Emmanuel, we sing as we wait, in anticipation of the time when we might rejoice in the right use of all the hope and faith and love that we store up in this time between times. O come thou Rod of Jesse, and give us victory over that silent grave. O come, Key of David, close the path to misery, that finally at the end of all our waiting and striving we find that indeed, God is with us.
To read the full text of the poem "East Coker" by TS Elliot please click on the link below