Life Before Death (homily)
First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-36
One day a little fish came up to a big fish and asked him a question.
“Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me, where is the ocean?”
“You’re swimming in it,” the big fish replied.
The key to faith isn’t life after death, as Anthony De Mello says. It’s life before death. It’s life right now--the fullness of life.
I don’t know about you, but wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I’m always a few minutes ahead in my mind. If I’m reading, I’m thinking about walking. If I’m walking, I’m thinking about lunch. I’m always worried about the next thing, and deeper, I’m always longing. I’m always longing for the future. There’s something missing in my life, something unfulfilled, and in the season of Advent the Church says, yes. The old world will end and a new world will come, and it will be wonderful and beautiful and fulfill all our desires. “In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure,” Jeremiah proclaims, and “this is what they shall call her: The LORD our Justice.”
But Jesus isn’t linear. Jesus isn’t bound by time. “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” we say. All time has been transcended, through Christ and in Christ. It has been folded back onto itself. The one we long for has already come. The child has been crucified and has risen and the Spirit he sent into the world fills every corner of it. There is no particle of matter that is not charged with his energy and charged with his love.
So what are we waiting for? It’s right in front of us. It’s all around us.
DeMello tells the story of a young monk who went to the master. (I’m paraphrasing all these little stories from DeMello.) Master he said, you haven’t told us the meaning of life. You haven’t told us the secret.
Suddenly, in the forest, a bird began to sing. It was a beautiful, haunting sound.
Did you hear that? the master asked.
Yes, the young monk said. And suddenly he understood.
What the readings in Advent are really saying is: wake up. “Beware that your hearts not become drowsy,” Luke warns us, but “be vigilant,” be open and aware, because the world is always ending and the world is always beginning and we’ll miss it entirely if we don’t stop and pay attention.
“There will be signs,” Jesus says, “in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.”
A couple of weeks ago the full moon was shining through the bare branches of our maple tree. This was in the morning, before dawn, as the moon was setting. I’d been so preoccupied all term, with my classes and with other things--with what Luke calls “the anxieties of daily life”--that I’d missed the leaves turning in the tree. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen them at all. But just then, through grace, I was present in the moment that had come. I was aware of the silence of the house. I was aware of my breathing. I was aware of the light of the moon falling on the books and on the chairs, on all the trees of the forest.
Awareness is holiness. Eternal life is already here, for all of us, and when we know that, when through grace we really feel that, we are free and happy and entirely unafraid.
Because of course the future really scares us. We think about it so much because we’re afraid of it. We’re afraid of all the things that might go wrong and all the things that will go wrong, all the things that will hurt us, and we think that by worrying and obsessing and getting ourselves ready we can keep ourselves from getting hurt.
But we can’t. Who of us by worrying, Jesus says, can add one moment to the span of our lives?
This is what I keep hearing behind the readings today. I hear Jesus in the valley telling us to be like the birds, which neither sow nor read. To be like the flowers, which merely grow.
All of us, through awareness, can live in the moments we have. All of us, through listening and through seeing and through opening ourselves up, can be filled with the presence that fills all things.
And when we are, what can hurt us? When we are, what else can possibly matter? The light of the moon falls on everything equally. The light of the moon is falling through the bare branches of the tree. “All the paths of the Lord are kindness and constancy,” The Psalmist says. Even when the world ends, Luke assures us, even at the apocalypse, we who believe can “stand erect” and “raise our heads.”
For there is nothing to fear. Our redemption is at hand.
Awareness is holiness. Our task this Advent is simply to be alive. To be fully alive.
Or maybe that’s too much to ask. Maybe all we can do for now is stand back and be aware of how hard it is for us to be aware. Just stand back and watch ourselves being distracted and preoccupied and caught up in things--not judging ourselves, not condemning ourselves. Just watching our thoughts and our feelings float by, like the weather, like the clouds.
That’s a good Advent task, in fact. A good discipline.
All the rest is grace anyway.
A boy was in love with a girl but she resisted his advances. He wrote her letters and poems, beautiful love poems, pages and pages of them. Finally, she relented. Come and see me, she said, and the young man came, and he sat down in a chair, and pulling out a sheaf of his poems he began to read aloud.
Stop it, the girl said, amazed. Stop it. I’m right here!
A man fell asleep, and he had a dream, and in the dream he was signing a contract for a million dollars. Suddenly his wife was shaking him. Wake up, she said. It’s time to go to work. But the man was angry. You interrupted me, woman! Let me go back to sleep! I’m about to become a millionaire!
All our contracts are just dream contracts. We’re all just living in illusions.
We’re all just little fish in a big ocean, and we can’t see it. We can’t believe it.
But if we did, if we did, we’d be filled with joy. We’d be exalted.
Look! Look! All around us is the sea, the glorious sea.