The End of the World

We almost didn’t make it to tonight.  As many of you will know—namely, those who stocked your earthen bomb shelter with years’ worth of canned goods and lamp oil—the ancient Mayan long calendar proclaimed that the world would end on December 21 of this year.  Actually, it didn’t quite say that.  On that date, December 21, the calendar itself simply ended.  Stopped short.  Cut off.  And for many the implication was that history itself would cease on that very day.  In recent months, people predicted that on December 21 the earth’s rotation would reverse itself, or that a rogue planet called Niburu would collide with earth, or that our world would be swallowed by a black hole.  In any event, on December 21 the world was supposed to end.Mayan calendar

The furor surrounding the Mayan calendar has been laughable.  It’s the stuff of children’s hysteria, and, indeed, my own kids have been coming home for the past year telling me of their friends’ playground predictions of the Mayan Armageddon.  But it’s not all humorous.  ABC News reports a rash of desperate actions contemplated by frightened people, including some who considered suicide pacts on December 21.[i]

That the Mayan long calendar ends on December 21 is no accident or coincidence.  December 21 is the date on which predictions of earth-shattering disaster, of eternal and unremitting darkness, have most often occurred throughout human history.  December 21 is, of course, the winter solstice.  It is midwinter, the shortest day, the longest night, the point at which it seems for all the world that the encroaching darkness will overcome the light.  Warmth and life are at greatest risk of being snuffed out entirely.   This is still today, at some deep and visceral level, the root of our fear.  We’re afraid of the dark, and right to be.  And in our world of electric illumination it’s difficult to imagine just how terrifying the winter solstice was for pre-modern people.

One such group of people lived five thousand years ago in Ireland.  These nameless Neolithic people, who we would in our twenty-first century arrogance call primitive, built a mysterious, enormous, and sophisticated earthen domed temple at Newgrange in northeastern Ireland.  Five thousand years ago.  That’s six hundred years before the first cornerstone was laid for Egypt’s great pyramid at Giza.  That’s three thousand years before the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary and a star guided the holy family to Bethlehem.

NewgrangeThe Neolithic people at Newgrange disappeared around 2000 B.C., and around that same time the temple entrance collapsed, sealing the interior.  From then on, subsequent waves of people approached the Newgrange temple with a mixture of mystery, fear, reverence and awe.  Newgrange emitted a palpable spiritual force.  It was, as the Irish say, a “thin place.”  The Celts, who arrived on the island around 500 B.C., determined that their gods must live in the temple.

So powerful was the aura at Newgrange that it, unlike other prehistoric sites, was never molested.  For almost five thousand years no one dug through the collapsed entrance and looted the temple.  The Romans, who called Ireland Hibernia, “the frozen land,” never attempted to conquer the island, but they did make forays, and they did visit Newgrange.  Roman coins have been found scattered around the temple base, and their presence suggests to the imagination powerful, armor-bedecked Romans soldiers tossing coins in tribute to Newgrange and then backing away slowly in respect of the temple’s own power.

Only at the dawn of the Enlightenment, when men and women began to scoff at the power of spirit, was Newgrange opened.  And not until 1962 was a careful and systematic excavation undertaken and the original entrance to the temple reconstructed.  When this occurred, it immediately became obvious what the purpose of Newgrange was.

Newgrange interior passageNo less than the Mayans, the Neolithic people of Ireland were terrified of December 21.  Each year, as the winter darkness encroached upon their northern latitude, they feared the sun would fail to rise altogether and the black of night would be eternal.  And so they built their giant temple, adorned with spiraled, stone-carved art; supported by a corbelled roof that doesn’t leak after five millennia; with a single, long, narrow passageway that ends at an altar. Just above the temple entrance is a small rectangular opening, and the temple is oriented just so that at dawn on December 21—and on no other day of the year—the first shaft of sun light pierces the darkness of that passageway like a laser.  It travels the length of the temple and ends squarely in the center of the altar.

For the Neolithic people, this was cause and effect.  Newgrange was their offering to the sun, with prayers that the sun would enter their world as it enters their temple and make that world new, that its light would not be overcome by the darkness.  The temple was built as the incarnation of a hope that the sun would come.  It is difficult to decide which is more impressive, the engineering feat of Newgrange, or the potency of the faith that constructed it.

In 2011, twenty-four St. John’s pilgrims and I traveled to Ireland.  We visited Newgrange, and we saw firsthand the wonder of the temple.  Its spiritual power is, indeed, palpable.  But when we entered that holy place and reached the end of the passageway, we realized something that the literature fails to tell.  In a fashion different from many other Neolithic temples, the interior of Newgrange is cruciform.  Its three altar chambers connected to the passageway form the head and transepts of a cross.

Such an aberration can be explained in numerous ways, and it can, indeed, be explained away.  But not by me.  With C.S. Lewis, I believe that through every mythic story, every conception of God, every hope and every prayer, the world has been readied for the Incarnation of God in Christ.  And perhaps nowhere on the globe was this more so than at Newgrange.  The Celts were right to grant the presence of God in that place.  The Romans were wise to back away in reverence.  Through the faithful labor of a prehistoric people, across millennia in which men and women of widely varying faiths without exception held Newgrange in awe and wonder, the world was primed for the coming of Jesus.  Three thousand years before the holy family traveled the dusty Judean road to Bethlehem, Newgrange anticipated the Christ child.  Two thousand years after Jesus’ birth, in these last gasping moments of Advent, we do the same.

Newgrange is, indeed, an offering to the Son.  On the darkest day of the year, it is a testament to the divine light, which John’s Gospel assures us the darkness cannot overcome.  All those ancient people—Mayan, Irish, and others—missed their calculations by only a few days.  The old world did not end on December 21.  It ends tonight.  Christ is born, and with him the world is born anew.  God again joins us in our human struggle.  God’s light enters the world like a laser, piercing our darkness and illuminating the paths before us.  The angels sing, “This is good news of great joy for all people.”

Indeed it is.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Amen.

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The Threshold of the New World

Santa on Christmas EveAs the anticipation of Advent nears its end, I am reminded of the story told by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Hollins graduate Annie Dillard of a cold Christmas Eve during her childhood.  Her family had come home late from dinner at a restaurant, and as she readied for bed there was a knock at the door.  Her father opened the door, and standing at the threshold in the cold night air was Santa Claus himself.  Rather than being filled with joy and excitement, Annie was struck with fear, and she turned and ran up the stairs.  As she peeked down the banister, her father called to her to come down, but she was too afraid.  She says:

“Like everyone in his right mind, I feared Santa Claus, thinking he was God….  [Santa Claus] knew when you’d been bad or good.  He knew when you’d been bad or good!  And I had been bad.  My mother called and called, enthusiastic, pleading; I wouldn’t come down….  I couldn’t come down, but I could bend over the stairwell and see: Santa Claus stood in the doorway with night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky; Santa Claus stood in the doorway monstrous and bright…repeating Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.  I never came down.  I don’t know who ate the cookies.”

Much later Annie realized that it was her widowed neighbor, Miss White, who had been dressed in the Santa suit that night.  During her childhood, Miss White was an incarnation of God for Annie, a woman who loved her, taught her, and encouraged her in the world.  But that night, Annie knew only fear, and she ran.

Annie Dillard ends her story with a note to Miss White, or to God.  She writes, “I am sorry that I ran from you.  I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge.  For you meant only love, and I felt fear….  So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”

Again this Christmas, love comes to us incarnate.  Christ’s light pierces the darkness and shines for us and upon us and ushers in a new world.  We need not fear.  We need not run away.  Despite the winter cold, the newborn God will warm us heart and soul and carry us into new life.

Providence, calling & Abraham Lincoln

Today is the first Sunday after the announcement that I have accepted the call to serve as the dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas.  Below is today’s homily.  I have been blessed to serve among such faithful people at St. John’s.  My love for this parish and her people is deep and abiding.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I saw the new Stephen Spielberg film, Lincoln.  If you’ve not yet seen it, change your Sunday afternoon plans and go to the movies.  Lincoln is a most remarkable film.  Daniel Day Lewis, arguably the most versatile actor working today, utterly transforms himself into the sixteenth President of the United States.  Using written descriptions from the nineteenth century, Lewis mimics Lincoln’s high tenor voice.  He slouches as if under the weight of Lincoln’s considerable height, and he incessantly tells stories to the captive audiences around him, as the real Lincoln supposedly did.  Most importantly, Lewis’ Lincoln conveys the President’s internal struggle with decisions that result in the deaths of thousands and the heavy heart of grief he bears in consequence.  In Spielberg’s film, Lincoln steps off his marble seat and becomes a real person.  By film’s end, when John Wilkes Booth’s bullet inevitably finds its mark, we love Lincoln the way citizens a century and a half ago loved him, and we grieve his loss.

Lincoln on Euclid

“Do we choose to be born?
Or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”

The best scene in the film occurs late at night between Lincoln and two young military engineers who’ve been assigned telegraph duty.  Alone with these two other souls in a large and empty office, the President struggles aloud with a crucial decision.  Rebel peace emissaries from Richmond are making their way toward Washington, D.C.  If Lincoln allows them to arrive, the Civil War could reach a negotiated end.  But in that case, all hope of the Congress preemptively adopting the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery will be lost.  If Lincoln delays the emissaries, the amendment will pass and slavery will be no more, but the war will drag on.  Many will be freed, but many others will die on the battlefield.

Lincoln dictates his telegram and then pauses, reconsidering his decision.  Then, apropos of nothing, he begins talking to the young engineers about the ancient mathematician Euclid.  The President speaks of mathematical truth and the way Euclid’s axioms are written into the very fabric of reality.  They are not created; they are not invented; they simply are.  And then Abraham Lincoln, sitting slouched in a chair with a blanket draped over his shoulders to guard against the chill, asks, “Do we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”

He is asking a question about Providence, about God’s timing and our own nature as instruments of God’s purpose in the world.  He is asking the young, wide-eyed engineers whether his—Lincoln’s—presence in that age, in that room, at the cusp of that hugely weighty decision, is chance and happenstance, or whether it has been written into the fabric of the world, like Euclid’s theorems, that the threads of God’s purpose would come together just so to bring that weary man to that basement, on that night, in that moment.

Our Gospel reading today addresses Lincoln’s question.  On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear again the story of John the Baptist crying out to us from the wilderness.  But Luke, in a manner quite unlike Matthew and Mark, goes out of his way to establish minutely the exact timing of John’s emergence and proclamation.  Our Gospel reading today begins:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

Not the year before, not the following season, not in a neighboring country, and not someone else.  At that moment, in that place, and for that purpose, God called John the Baptist forth.  Only then do we hear John’s words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

Luke is, among the biblical writers, the most brilliant storyteller.  By his manner of storytelling, Luke stresses the particularity of John’s proclamation to us.  We, in our own times and places and especially in this Advent season, are to seek where and how we are called to prepare the Way of the Lord.  We are to discern how, in both our hearts and in our worlds, we are to make the paths of God straight.

As those who have engaged our program theme this year are discovering, we are each so called particularly.  Whether we are the President of the United States or the commonest of men, God calls us in our contexts, in particular ways and to specific things in his service.  And this is is how I come to the news today that I must leave you.  I am no Abraham Lincoln, and the decision with which lately I have been faced doesn’t make the difference between slavery and war.  But trust me when I say to you I have found myself awake in the middle of the night, sometimes sitting alone with a blanket against the chill, asking Lincoln’s question, and pondering John’s command: In what way is God fitting me to this time?  How am I called to prepare God’s Way?   These are Advent questions—questions of anticipation and expectation for what God may do—and this season, in conversation and prayer with God and with fellow Christians whose wisdom I trust, the answer that has come to me is that God is calling me to Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, the parish of my grandfather and, as it turns out, the parish in which Bishop William Marmion was raised.

God does not compel this decision.  God never compels, and God never coerces.  Such things are not in the nature of love, and God is love.  We choose to listen for God’s will, or not.  We elect to cooperate with God’s call upon our lives, or not.  But when we do not, we cut off specific avenues of grace.  Surely, God then presents other avenues, but when we deny God’s calling something is diminished in us.  Being who God creates us to be and doing what God creates us to do depends upon our discerning hearts and our willingness to follow where God beckons.  I have said this to innumerable ones of you on countless occasions, and I would be a sorry priest if I did not follow this counsel in my own walk of faith.

This Advent, then, also becomes a particular moment in your history, the long and storied and grace-filled history of St. John’s Church, when you must ask how you are fitted for this time, when you must ask what it means now for you to prepare the Way of the Lord in this place.  You are healthy; you are faithful; you are the embodiment of God’s beloved community.  God has profoundly good things in store for you.  You are the best people I know, and God loves you more than you can ask or imagine.

Advent altar

In the meantime, we have two more months together.  We will celebrate the turning of the calendar, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord.  We will pray and laugh and maybe cry a little, but mostly we will thank God for fitting us to this time together for the past five years.

Some months ago I preached a sermon in which I discussed how difficult it is to write the last words of a homily.  The last words, I shared, are the hardest, because the last words are the ones that matter.  The last words are the ones that linger in the mind and attach themselves to the heart.  I found the composition of the last words today to be impossible.  I don’t know how adequately to say what you mean to me and how grace-filled these five years have been.  And then I read St. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, which is our first reading today.  Wonder of wonders!  God provides the words when we have no words.  So let me claim St. Paul’s prayer as my own prayer for you:

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me….  For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”  Amen.