23 December 2012

Awake & Astonished: IV. Astounded - An Advent Series

Annunciation, attr. Melozzo da Forli
(c.1438-1494), Pantheon, Rome
(Photo: K. E. Kovacs.)

Micah 5: 2-5 & Luke 1:39-55

Fourth Sunday of Advent/ December 23, 2012

The word “astounded” has it roots in the Latin extonare, meaning to “strike with thunder.”  Early forms of the word appeared in fifteenth century English, meaning “stunned” or “astonished.”  Struck. Stunned. Astounded.  That’s how Mary must have felt when she learned that she would bear the Savior of the world.  The inbreaking of God’s saving presence is often an experience of being stunned by grace; these experiences come upon us.  They surprise and maybe startle us, but they also have the capacity to offer hope and liberation and the promise of a new day. That’s what Christ’s birth can mean for us when we, like Mary, are open to being struck by God’s Spirit and risk being astounded.  But are we open?  Are we awake?

The parents, teachers, and citizens of Newtown, Connecticut – indeed the nation – know something of the meaning of this word, astounded.  They, we, have been struck, stunned, even traumatized by this horrific event.  It is too much for us to bear, too much to take in.  To be struck, stunned, astounded in this way, with the inbreaking of this news, to undergo that kind of experience, that kind of suffering and loss, has a way of causing us, almost inevitably, to shut down and close ourselves off, maybe drift off to sleep or enter a kind of catatonic state in which we walk around with our eyes wide open, but really asleep inside.

            A lot of pastors and theologians this past week have responded to the massacre in Newtown, online, on the television, in sermons around the world.  An event like this raises all kinds of questions for everyone about faith, providence, and evil. Some are grateful for their faith in such a time, for others that faith is being sorely tested, for others still it only confirms their atheistic stance in the world.  Coming during this season of peace, goodwill, and joy, it’s especially difficult for many.  Some in Newtown, CT, I’m told have taken down their Christmas decorations because they feel it’s inappropriate. We can certainly understand such a response for those who have and are experiencing loss at Christmas.  Tragedy at this time of year has a way of putting the meaning of Christmas and the nature of one’s faith into sharp relief. 

            I must say, there have been a lot of thoughtless responses coming from pastors and religious leaders with high visibility, who embarrass me as a fellow-Christian, expounding really questionable, even destructive theologies.  And we wonder why people are leaving the Church.  Some are reacting too quickly with reasons and answers and lessons learned.  Feelings are still too raw to speak intelligently.  One of the more thoughtful, pastoral, responses I read this week came from the Franciscan Father Richard Rohr.  I have a lot of respect for Rohr.  He’s very wise.  He said, “…the very point of faith must be:  ‘How do you keep your heart open in hell?’  How do you keep trusting?  How do you keep any kind of happy, rejoicing faith when so much of life is, frankly, disappointing, tragic, absurd, evil, wrong?” This is the immediate issue before us.  “The heart just keeps being assaulted.  And as many people get older the heart closes down.”

            The composer of the hymn we just sang, “Sleepers, Wake! A Voice Astounds Us,” had every reason to stay sleeping.  He had every reason to give up on hope.  He had every reason to shut down his emotions and close off his heart.  He had every reason to not trust in the future.  Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) was a Protestant pastor in Unna, Westphalia (Germany).  In the sweltering July of 1597, plague arrived in Unna.  An initial 300 people died.  Over the next six months 1000 inhabitants perished.  Pastor Nicolai’s home “overlooked the graveyard where some two dozen burials took place on a single day.  During one particularly virulent week approaching the Advent season of 1597, Nicolai conducted funerals for 170 of his parishioners.”  As a pastor, the mind boggles trying to comprehend that, how the human spirit can endure that, stay open, and not shut down.  And yet, as a testimony to his faith during this time, he wrote a book of meditations to be published after his death.  He entitled the book, FreudenspiegelMirror of Joy.  The hymn text, “Sleepers, Wake,” was one of two poems included in the work.[1]

            We studied the hymn text this morning during adult ed, but one thing to lift up here for us is that Nicolai had this deep trust and confidence in God’s presence in and through the trials of his life.  He looked with confidence toward the life to come with God where they would need no light, no lamp, nor sun,For Christ will be their All!”  (Rev. 224).  He also looked toward the future when Christ would return, his second Advent. 

            The Christian’s orientation is always toward the future.  We lean into the future.  For the person of faith, history is never destiny.  God’s future breaks the chains of the past, loosing its hold on us.  The present is never definitive of what can be and cannot predict the future, because we don’t know what will be.  But what we do know is that God will be there before us and we wait for that new day to come.  This is the reason for our joyful hope, this is the reason for joy.

            This forward-leaning orientation is there all over the prophets.  It’s there in Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,…from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”  He points to the time when Israel in exile in Babylon when a young child will lead them home, back to Jerusalem – so watchmen on the walls of the city, look, wake up, be prepared for the people of God on the way home.   “And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”  That day is coming – a forward-leaning orientation.

            Mary had it too.  It was the song of her heart.  Magnificat!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  In the midst of her suffering, a poor women in an occupied country, she was confident that God was about to birth something new, she would bear the presence of God in the world.  She saw in him a future promised to Israel.  His birth is a foretaste of that future when prideful hearts will be scattered and the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up; when the hungry will be fed not with scraps and leftovers but filled with good things, and the rich sulking away with their wealth feeling empty, and he will be a child of mercy.  She is laboring toward that new world about to be born through her.

            That’s what Christ’s birth can mean for us when we, like Mary, are open to being struck by God’s Spirit and risk being astounded by the new world Christ is trying to birth through you and me.  But are we open?  Are we awake? Are we leaning into that future with joyful hope?

            Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), the playwright, poet, dissident under Communist rule and later president of the Czech Republic, said,  “Hope is a condition of the soul, not a response to circumstances.”  Hope is not he same as optimism.

            I think Havel is right.  Hope is a condition of the soul.  It comes from a place deep within us that has been shaped and formed by the tragic forces of the world, nevertheless tempered by a confidence in the power of God to act in a liberating, loving, transforming way.  Hope is God's Nevertheless!  Hope has little to do with what “makes sense.” For what really makes sense in this world?  For Israel’s prophets, hope was a condition of the soul.  For Mary, hope was the song of her soul.  For people like Philipp Nicolai, only a certain condition of the soul can withstand such suffering.  For us, our hope, too, is a condition of the soul, which allows us to stay open to possibilities beyond what the present moment might suggest.  There’s so much in this world that wants to shut us down, close us off, lull us to sleep.

            The world needs us; indeed, God needs us – and all people of faith – to be awake and open, with open hearts, even open in hell.  When hearts are open, like Mary, we can be receptive to the new thing God is doing in the world; open to the new thing God is birthing in us and through us. And then we, too, will be struck, and stunned, and astounded by the grace of God that is still at work in the world, whose message to the shepherds is given to all of us who are far afield, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2: 10).  That is always our hope.

[1] Mary Louise Bringle, “People, Look East: A Study of Advent Hymns,” (Session 4), www.TheThoughtfulChristian.com.

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