Thursday, November 24, 2005

Advent 1B: Remembering the Future

One of the most popular Christmas specials of recent years has been the dramatization of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory". The very title of that wonderful program tells us something important about the season we have just entered. Advent and Christmas are seasons of memory. All of us have memories of Advents and Christmases past. I hope we remember how the liturgy of the church changes at the beginning of Advent. One of the great advantages of our traditions as Episcopalians is that worship involves our senses. At the beginning of Advent we see that green gives way to purple; we notice the Advent wreath and its four candles, knowing that when all four are lit Christmas is finally at hand; we smell the Advent greenery on the altar and Advent wreath; we hear the lovely, haunting Advent hymns -- "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel".

But I'm afraid that our memories are more shaped by the popular media than by the traditions of the church.

Perhaps one artist above all seems to have caught the popular imagination with his scenes of American life, especially his depictions of Christmas and other holidays, and that artist is Norman Rockwell. I remember seeing a Rockwell print that would be for many the ideal scene of Christmas festivity.

It depicts an older man and two boys (apparently a father and his sons) are dragging an evergreen, snow still clinging to it, into a well-appointed living room. A fire burns in the fireplace, and a woman and young girl (surely the mother and daughter) clap their hands together in delight.

Well, as Yogi Berra once remarked, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be".

The "Christmases past" of most "baby boomers" were urban or suburban in nature. We had artificial trees or perhaps dried up sticks of trees we bought from Boy Scouts in the church parking lot.

The message of much popular media seems to be that we should try to remember a past that never was or at least was not our past.

Like us, the writer of Isaiah 64 struggled with the problem of memory. The memories recalled in Isaiah 64 are not of a "Norman Rockwell Christmas"; they are better, truer, and deeper memories. They are memories of the mighty acts of God. The writer remembers a God who came down from heaven and at whose presence the mountains quaked. Isaiah recalls a God who "kindled brushwood" and caused the waters of the earth to steam and boil.

The writer of Isaiah 64 did not have personal memories of these things. When the writer of Isaiah 64 spoke of the mountains quaking at God's presence he was alluding to Israel's encounter with God at Sinai. That was an event in the distant past, something which no one alive had personally witnessed. And yet Israel remembered, for the event was embedded deeply in their corporate memory and that memory was kept alive in their stories.

More than likely, the author of Isaiah 64 was an exile who had returned to Jerusalem about fifty years after Babylon had invaded and burned and destroyed Israel's holy city. But the prophet and the refugees who returned from Babylon had kept alive the memory of what their God had done; they had told the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel. They had recounted Israel's great deliverance at the Red Sea and of the awe their mothers and fathers had felt before Sinai when Moses delivered God's great precepts: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt... you shall have no other Gods before me." The memories of Israel's God were just as real to the prophet, as if had seen them with his own eyes. For they were a part of Israel's corporate memory. In fact, they were what gave existence and identity to Israel.

And so they gathered, prophet and people, amidst the ruins of Jerusalem, among the rubble of the Temple to tell the story of the God who had done "awesome deeds that we did not expect". They gathered to remember and to wait. To tell the story surrounded by the destruction Babylon had visited upon Israel and its capital took courage and boldness. It could even be seen as an act of defiance. It was counter-cultural. To remember what God has done in the past is to hope for and anticipate what God may do in the future.

We gather in our warm homes and churches, not in the ruins of the Temple. But our world, too, often seems a wasteland, a land in which we have forgotten God and God has forgotten us. Like Isaiah and the Israelites, we gather in the cold and dark; we light candles and sing songs and tell again the story of the God who came and who comes, of that which has been and is yet to be.

Like the prophet who penned Isaiah 64 we must confess that we, too, have not seen or heard the God who made the mountains tremble, who "did awesome deeds that we did not expect". The memory of a Norman Rockwell Christmas is lovely but unreal. The memory of a God who comes down, who meets whose who "gladly do right" is very real indeed.

Like the prophet we, too, can tell the story, Israel's story, of a God who came down with majesty and fire. But we can also tell the story of a God who came with meekness and gentleness in the form of a baby.

And we can tell the story of how God comes among us even now, who "meets whose who gladly do right, those who remember [God] in their ways".

What we remember and await is not a Norman Rockwell Christmas. It is a lovely picture, but the day after we would be left with a feeling of emptiness. Instead, we wait for something infinitely better - for the skies to pour down righteousness upon those who hunger and are cold, for fire to fall upon dry and drowsy hearts, which is to say, upon us. We assemble and tell the story as we remember that which is yet to be and anticipate what has already happened -- the advent of our God.