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Passing Time

Among my kin, those planned holidays known as family time have long been known as a form of corrective punishment. I don't mention this as an indictment suggesting that there has been bad blood between us. I'm just saying that when my people gathered to intone Thanksgiving grace at my Grandmother's table, it never came as a surprise when a few theological fistfights broke out between the Lord's chosen Swedes and those unwashed Gentiles who had managed to marry into our family.  While it is not exactly in the Text as they say, that little bit of family history probably demonstrates the more general truth that wherever two or three have gathered in the name of the Lord, there are always at least four opinions present and accounted for. Perhaps this is also why your own family may tend to get just a little cranky after navigating a long holiday weekend together. For after spending the better part of Thanksgiving feeling under pressure to feed and entertain that vaguely familiar horde of Goths and Visigoths who have assembled to pillage and plunder your ancestral household, sometimes things will be said which can lead to other things being said. Eventually, when your clan ends up saying things that you all had promised to never mention again in public, the odds are fairly good that your family time will end up in what you might call a formal airing of grievances.

Of course, nobody ever intends for a perfectly fine celebration like Thanksgiving to turn out like this, especially given that a deepening sense of gratitude rather than disgruntlement is presumably the whole point of the exercise. As that eminent American theologian, Garrison Keillor, once observed, the very best element of any Thanksgiving gathering will usually be the thankfulness part rather than your attempt to sleep off a turkey coma in the company of your loudest relatives and their embittered children. Why are all of you thankful?  Keillor explained that you celebrate every Thanksgiving with "sheer gratitude for the fact that you have [once again] navigated the treacherous channels of life [without having] thrown your savings down a rat hole or contracted an insect-borne disease so rare they plan to name it after you.” Therefore, given your largely unremarked and certainly unmerited good fortune, you will dutifully bow your head to allow your Dad or Grandpa or even that odd and rather overly-friendly podiatrist that Aunt Hildegarde began dating around Halloween to pronounce a family prayer of Thanksgiving for every blessing which has come down to you straight from Heaven above. This is what is required, and so this is what you do. As Keillor put it, to simply throw a turkey onto the reproduction Duncan Phyfe table in the dining room and allow everyone to “dig in and feed like jackals at the carcass of a fallen gazelle” will simply never do justice to the occasion. For prior to that moment that your tribe gathered around that table for a word of grace, there was always a monumental load of hard work that had to be done. Curiously, in my family, the usual division of that labor left all of the men sitting loose-limbed around a blaring television set paying scant attention to a football game while making small talk about car repairs and the mysteries of gout and lower back pain. But the women? As Keillor might have reported, most of the strong women from our family would typically spend the morning of Thanksgiving guarding the kitchen to make sure that no man who came mooing around the feeding trough was allowed to touch anything and cause permanent damage. By the time that the bird was finally done, the whole house smelled of butter and melted animal fats, and you could hardly sing the Doxology given that you were salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Grateful? You bet. It takes no genius around any table like that to know that it is forever appropriate to Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.

But of course, Thanksgiving has now come and gone, and with its passing we are onto a new season of liturgical time with the beginning of another Advent. Even so, you just have to hand it to the Church for the odd mixture of lunacy and sheer genius that is evident in the way we begin our calendar in such a creatively maladjusted fashion. For while the culture around us has wasted nary a nanosecond in its attempt to hurry us toward the celebration of Christmas as a fine way of getting us to part company with our hard-earned money, the Church begs attention for its own contrarian journey forward to that completely unexpected and perhaps uninvited Advent arrival of a thoroughly Jewish Messiah. To be sure, there will always be plenty of overlap between Christmas and Advent. But if our cultural journey to Christmas typically promises us the sugar-high of immediate gratification courtesy of our maxed-out credit cards, Advent seems instead to deepen in mystery day by day as it keeps asking us whether or not we are truly ready to meet the kind of Messiah for whom all of us are waiting. About this we should make no mistake: Waiting is precisely what the Advent season is focused on from start to finish. But why do you suppose that is the case?

Perhaps there is something crucial to be experienced in all of this waiting. A century ago when novelist Ernest Hemingway was wounded during the First World War, at least 237 pieces of shrapnel were surgically removed from his legs. But being placed in the recovery ward of a military hospital turned out to be deeply formative for the young writer, providing him a long and frustrating period of enforced convalescence during which Hemingway was able to carefully observe the other patients all around him. Over time, he began to notice that some of his fellow sufferers were surprisingly strengthened by the demands of their difficult period of recuperation, while others struggled emotionally and spiritually due to their own lack of depth and maturity. Eventually Hemingway became convinced about a critical insight: It was in the time of waiting that the true nature of a person was revealed. And from that discovery, the novelist developed his own method of storytelling utilizing a master plot or storyline which runs through many of his most famous works. Placing the protagonists of his novels, who were apparently good people, in difficult circumstances, Hemingway again and again forced his characters to wait for a final resolution to their stories. Some waited for moments of military combat, some characters waited through long days while adrift at sea, and others waited in anticipation of deadly contests taking place in the bullring. But in the end, Hemingway seemed to be suggesting that waiting itself neither makes or breaks the people that we are. Instead, his incisive point was that waiting simply reveals us as we are.

Now it is the first week of Advent, and what will eventually happen to us over this month of Sundays has not yet been revealed. Some good things will probably happen, as well as some painful things that none of us would likely choose if it were really in the end our own decision to make as to whether or not such things should be allowed to occur. As for the promised Advent, that promised arrival of Jesus himself, I cannot really tell you much that you would presumably like to know: When will he come, or where and how he will make himself known to us? All of that usually remains a complete mystery to us until we finally look back in shock and wonder and know it in retrospect just as clearly as we missed it when it first happened. But of one thing we can already be sure: It is Jesus for whom we are waiting, and there is plenty of truth and wisdom readily available to us if we wish to know what kind of Messiah Jesus will be. So here are a couple Advent questions for all of us to ponder during the coming weeks. What will this Advent waiting reveal about you when you finally meet up with the Jesus who is coming your way? Maybe better yet, where will you choose to go when the Messiah Jesus does show up to inaugurate his wildly different kingdom?

Jeff Crosno