ADVENT, OR A SEASON OF EXPECTATION
A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, December 3, 2017
So much of modern life is a race against the clock. There are so many demands on our time that we buy apps and appliances that help us manage the time we don’t have. My new phone tells me when it’s time to start preparing for bed; it wakes me up gradually, and greets me with the message that I’ll have to leave by a certain time if I don’t want to get to my first appointment late. When I drive cross-country my GPS tells me my arrival time, as if the time between is just an inconvenience, and the space I occupy en route is, metaphorically speaking, a black hole. Ever since Thanksgiving I’ve opened my email to dozens of messages to “Don’t Wait, Buy Now!” They warn me “There’s no time to wait, this won’t last!”
The season of Advent resists modernity’s insistence on convenience and quickness. Advent urges us to be ever so mindful in moments of pause and loitering, to seek beauty in the now, to find solace in expectation.
This morning we will discuss exactly that: How do we enjoy the time before and the time between? The point is not to learn patience in expectation of a delayed gratification, but rather an insistence to awaken to the life happening right in front of you. A lesson how to love loving; and live while living.
I’m one to talk – I suffer from an irrational dislike of what I regard as “wasted time.” And, temperamentally speaking, I’m a reformer; I cannot help but think of ways things might be done more efficiently and, ultimately, quicker.
Together, this obsession with time and reform, served me well when I worked as a waiter at an Olive Garden, while in college. The food and wine served there, which is mostly just palatable and relatively speaking, inexpensive, is almost never savored and lingered over. I know this because I worked there for four years.
Most people enjoy eating there because it’s quick, predictable, and consistent. There’s no mystery; you know what you’re going to get, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Miami, Florida, or Seattle, Washington, the chicken alfredo will taste the exact same, and the breadsticks will turn into breadstick-shaped cement if not consumed within 15 minutes of being placed on your table.
By the time I entered seminary I managed to work my way into a fine dining restaurant that eventually won the James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest. When compared with the Olive Garden, time in the fine dining restaurant seemed to move at a snail’s pace. People often spent 2, 3, even 4 or more hours dining there; in fact, I cannot recall anyone getting in and out of there in under 2 hours.
Many people chose to linger for an hour or 2 after their meal was over, just lazily and satisfactorily talking and sipping. It seemed to me that some people, couples especially, were holding onto the night as if it were their last.
The award-winning chef, whose name was Gerard (of course), pulled me aside in the middle of service one evening. Chef Gerard was totally self-taught, and prided himself on this fact. So, knowing I was a graduate student, he took it as his personal mission to cut me down to size, to ensure that my head not get too big now that I had entered the major leagues of the food industry. He assumed, rightly so, that I was just a bit overconfident, and therefore a risk to the overall ambiance of his unstuffy, downtown Saint Louis dining mecca.
Gerard pulled me out into the alley behind the restaurant for this lesson on humbleness; the true purpose of this lesson was for me to learn my proper place in his dining room.
Gerard said to me, “I know my food is delicious, everything I cook is amazing. I didn’t hire you to talk about how awesome my food is; my food does that on its own. I didn’t hire you because I want you to be able to make ends meet until you get your grown-up job as a priest or whatever the heck you say you’re going to be. I allowed you to work at my restaurant because I trust that you can help make the time between each course magical.”
“You see, Brian,” Gerard went on, “the most important time in any meal is when nothing’s on the table at all, nothing but elbows. Your job is to help remind these people that it doesn’t really matter it’s their birthday, or anniversary, or graduation. Your job is to make them realize that every single moment of their life is supposed to be savored. Your job is to disappear into the background of someone else’s life so that they can live a just a little brighter, if only for a couple hours; and it’s not rocket science, so don’t come crying to me, I don’t care about your feelings.”
Unless you were a cook or the host, time didn’t matter. What mattered in the dining room wasn’t time and predictability, but instead the elemental experience of waiting and being waited upon, the anticipation of what’s to come, and the singular joy of sharing in things so simple.
Chef Gerard’s lesson is this: it is the time between that truly matters.
Today is the first day of the season of Advent, that season in the Mainline Protestant Christian calendar that celebrates the earnest and expectant time before the birth of Jesus Christ.
At its core, Christianity is a religious tradition formed and sustained by people who live by faith, they live in a time of the now and not yet. And by celebrating the time before Jesus’s birth the purpose is to pause for a moment and acknowledge your place within the great circle of life, to consider even the time before your arrival and the time after your departure.
So, from December to around April (this year), through the telling of the life and death of Jesus, anyone willing to partake is invited into a season in which life and death, and the mysteries therein, are meditated upon. And it isn’t just Christians who do this, as you well know.
When I taught third and fourth grade Hebrew, at a Shabbat school, in Saint Louis, Missouri, each Wednesday the teachers and students would gather ‘round a grand mural of the Jewish calendar painted on the floor, in the synagogue’s entrance. And there, the rabbis would show the students where they were in the season of their faith. Depicted in that beautiful painting was the journey Jews, throughout the world, take each year, as they celebrate their sacred stories of Creation, enslavement and liberation, and travels through the wilderness into the Promised Land; furthermore, it draws them into their ethical commitment to serve as earthly vessels for the delivery of justice, righteousness, and shalom (שָׁלוֹם), for all humankind.
And this coming Friday, December 8, is the Buddhist celebration of Bodhi Day, which commemorates that great season of expectation in which “Siddhartha, after accepting the rice milk from the young girl, put aside the rags he was wearing, bathed himself in a nearby river, and, strengthened, sat down in the shade of the Bodhi tree, and began to meditate.”
In the words of the poet Jane Hirshfield, “He sat down under a Bodhi tree in the shelter of the natural world in all its beauty and fullness, and he said I will not move from this place until I have solved my problem.” And what Siddhartha realized upon attaining Nirvana was that “There is no where else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is your own body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. [Enlightenment is] not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment.” In other words, enlightenment is an awakening to the moment right in front of you, an embracing of the eternal now.
On some basic, fundamental level, there’s almost no denying that we, human beings, seem predisposed to the celebration of life’s fragile mysteries. Religions, such as Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism, ritualize these celebrations in liturgical calendars that ask its practitioners to meditate, if only for a season, on anticipation, to meditate on the space between the now and the not yet; or, as chef Gerard would likely call it, “elbow time.”
For those of you here who are parents you already know what I’m speaking of: bring to your mind that time of preparation and anxiety and excitement that lead up to the birth of your child or children. Can you remember painting the baby’s room and picking his or her name? Can you remember those frustrating hours you spent constructing the crib and bed, prewashing all those clothes and bottles, and practicing how the heck to get the car seat in and out of the car?
I recall, as (un)pregnant as I was, talking with my wife about how bizarre it is to become someone’s parent. I remember telling her how scared and unprepared and crazy-excited I felt, all at the same time. I could hardly wait to meet this mysterious human, a mysterious human who I would transfer all of my hopes and fears into, all of my strength, and unfortunately, some of my weaknesses.
So much of the magic of becoming a parent was that time of hopeful expectation, the time of impatient waiting, that time of faithful hope in the fragile mystery of the now and not yet.
For those of you who aren’t parents perhaps you’re willing to remember with me that time before you shared your first kiss. For, as I remember it, that time was similarly pregnant with hopeful expectation (pun intended).
I shared my first kiss with a woman named Daisy. I can easily recall sitting near the front row in the movie theater watching Titanic for the second time in a row. (I lost my nerve the first time because I had to expend all my energy hiding my tears as poor Leo lived his final moments drifting out into the cold sea.)
By the second viewing, shortly after the now famous painting scene, I managed to muster enough courage to lean over and kiss her. To be honest, I don’t really remember the kiss. What I do remember is the time before; how embarrassed I was that I didn’t kiss her the first time; I remember how sweaty my left hand was – I was so new to dating that I was unaware that it was allowed to let go of your date’s hand from time to time. (Or maybe I was holding on to her hand because I was deathly afraid she’d get up at any moment and sneak into the other theater to watch Home Alone 3 with my arch nemesis, Brad, and kiss him instead.)
What I certainly remember is how light I felt after we kissed; and how, in that moment, I felt as if Leo was gently holding my hips as I opened my arms and welcomed in the sea air at the bow of a doomed ship.
I remember going to sleep that night knowing for certain that Daisy and I would be together forever. (Daisy’s husband, Tim, loves this story by the way.)
It was the time leading up to the great risk of romance and parenthood that shaped me, perhaps as much as the actual intimacy or fatherhood.
What ultimately mattered was the courage to live fully in the moment, a willingness to trust that regardless of what awaits you, that at least you’ll be brave enough to do something big, to see if you’re able to create a little magic in the moment right in front of you.
In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, readers learn the only constant in the universe is the promise of perpetual change. There’s no promise of tomorrow, just the certainty that everything we know and everything we rely on is ultimately beyond our control.
No human measurement or instrument can or will ever change that. So much of life is nothing more than a calculated risk, a journey into several, but ultimately, one great unknown.
This vicious truth spells out yet another: There is no such thing as wasted time; there’s just a very limited amount of it.
The season of Advent is a reminder to us, from our human ancestors centuries ago, to love the moment right in front of you, to enjoy the unknowing; it encourages us to take risks in spite of everything.
We are reminded to do this because it is there, in the now we open our hearts to, that we glimpse the grace offered to us by living on the forming edges of our lives; and it is there where our courage grows, and we find the strength to endure the mysteries that wait.
This season of Advent ends with the birth of the one true hope for humankind. And even if you liberate that story from its Christian narrative it loses almost nothing in terms of truth and impact; because there’s no denying that the hope for us all lies in the very miracle of life itself.
That is why even the grumpiest of our sisters or brothers have their hearts melted once they cradle a newborn child; this is why perfect strangers on crowded busses and subways offer their seats to pregnant women.
We do this almost instinctively, as if it is natural for us to genuflect when faced with hope and possibility itself.
“Stay awake” Mark tells us in his Gospel. Give quickness and efficiency a rest for a spell. Let go of your stubborn obsession with control, and revel in the magic right in front of you. Savor the quiet moments of seeming nothingness, for there are no guarantees in the after.
There is no promise of tomorrow; there is only the courage and grace with which we face today. Live boldly, love freely, and savor it all, for that’s all there is. Amen and blessed be.