The life that saves you may be your own!


Yesterday, Wesley Hill, an Anglican New Testament scholar teaching at Trinity School for Ministry, published a reflection on God’s grace given to us in and through the everyday-ness of our lives – those things, those duties, those neighbors (whom perhaps we share our beds and homes with) – which constitute the normal furniture of our lives. His jumping off point is St. Paul’s enigmatic comment that women will be “saved though childbearing”:

Then another housemate sat down next to me. He asked me questions. He told me about his day. He helped me do dishes. Insistently, and simply by his physical presence, without any verbal articulation of what he was doing or why, he asked me to notice him, to talk with him and listen to him. At that moment, I didn’t especially want to. I wanted to get back to work—to get back to preparing tomorrow’s theology lesson, to get back to the theological novel I would read after closing the computer with my file of lecture notes. It only dawned on me later that perhaps this was, in my childless state, my analogue to being saved “through childbearing.”

Calvin’s gloss on 1 Timothy 2:15 speaks of the reference to childbearing, with its concomitant gestures to “faith and love and holiness, with modesty,” as indicating “in what way God conducts us to salvation, to which he has appointed us through his grace.” These children, in other words, inthese daily circumstances, are the path on which we are led to receive our spiritual rescue. Soskice again: “It is by being at the disposal of another that we are characteristically drawn out of ourselves.” We are saved, that is, by traversing the way of what Iris Murdoch has called the “extremely difficult realisation that someone other than oneself is real.” We are saved in and through such patient attention, not outside of it or beyond it. Perhaps we are saved in the early mornings, as the coffee cools, as well as in the lecture halls and carpools.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing! The essay also reminded me that I tried to make a similar point in a homily I preached last Advent, though, I see now, much less elegantly and effectively than did Professor Hill. In any case, since I never got around to posting it at the time, here ’tis.

– Fr. Patrick Allen

I Advent (A)
1 December 2013
St. Mary’s/Corpus Christi

This first Sunday of Advent reminds us that the Christian story is not over yet; there is more to come.  In Advent, we very intentionally place ourselves in solidarity with our elder brothers and sisters in the faith – those faithful Israelites – like Simeon and Anna and Elizabeth, Joseph and our Lady – were waiting, longing, and looking for “the consolation of Israel”, and saw and welcomed that Consolation, that Christ, when he arrived, poor and in a manger.  Because doing so teaches us to wait and long and look for him when he shall return “in power and great glory to judge both the quick and the dead.”  The Christian story, which is the world’s true story, moves forward; there is another act yet to come – and Advent reminds us of that.

Our Advent preparation for the feast of our Lord’s Nativity is a picture in miniature of what our preparation for his Return – which is to say, the entirety of our lives – ought to be: expectant; hopeful; watchful.  Awake and prepared, so that “without shame or fear we may rejoice to behold his appearing.”  In this morning’s Gospel lesson, our Lord is very bluntly warning us to be ready, to be prepared: Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

It is, I know, difficult to keep any kind of an Advent in America, when the religious Holy Day has been swamped by a no-holds-barred retail free for all and Christmas trees are dumped on the curb on St. John’s Day.  But if we will give ourselves to it, teach ourselves, in the midst of all the bustle and busy-ness, to keep a holy Advent, it will form us, sharpen our senses, lift up our heads and our hearts so that, like those elder brothers and sisters in the faith, we will see and welcome him when he comes.

Now that can happen, Advent can do its work, in a number of ways – but I can’t help but notice that in this Gospel lesson, the emphasis falls on the mundane, the everyday; the emphasis falls, if you’ll indulge the paradox, on the unemphasized.  Notice what our Lord says.  Making the comparison of his own return to the days of Noah, he says, in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – in other words, they were living their lives, as of course, were Noah and his family.

And when he looks forward to the day of his return, he says two men will be [at work] in the field… two women will be grinding at the mill – in other words, just living their lives.  Their days are filled by the very same things, yet one is prepared and taken, and the other left, and Jesus doesn’t mention any other difference between them.  Both their days were filled with work and the necessities of life: the joys and obligations of family, maintaining a home, the morning and evening commute, getting the children to school and practice and lessons, watching whatever the ancient Middle-Eastern equivalent of college football on Saturday was – all the same things that our own days are filled with.  But one will be taken and the other left.

The point is that the watchfulness our Lord urges upon us, the preparedness we must develop, does not mean jettisoning our everyday lives.  And what I want to suggest is that the joys and responsibilities, the adventures and tedium of our everyday, normal lives, can be either the means of our faithful and joyful preparation for our Lord’s return, or the obstacles to it.  C.S. Lewis made just this point in the Screwtape Letters when his fictional demon Screwtape, advising his demon nephew Screwtape on how to tempt a human being to Hell, says regarding this particular human’s having fallen in love: “Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.”

To which I would add, as so also are the things we don’t get so excited about: working in the field, grinding at the mill, changing diapers and washing dishes, filling out forms, driving the carpool – all of it the raw material of our spiritual formation.  All those things are the little deeds we may do either with great love and praise or with disdain and distraction.  It depends, of course, on the attitude, the orientation of our hearts, we bring to the task.

Because our work, the ordinary tasks of domestic life, even the way in which we drive, all of these things are, in reality, opportunities to love and serve our neighbor – which is to say, they are opportunities to love and serve our Lord.  But that takes, of course, the constant and conscious application of the Advent discipline to our lives:  looking for our Lord, watching for him, ready to love him when he appears – as he does.

The Lord will come at the end of the age, at a day and hour neither we nor even the angels in Heaven know, to judge both the quick and the dead.  That is Advent’s ultimate horizon, the coming of our Lord for which he urged us to watch and prepare.  But the way to prepare, the way to watch, is to see and welcome the Lord in his nearer and quieter Advents.  “God walks among the pots and the pans,” St. Teresa of Avila told her fellow nuns.  And he comes among us in those in need – and who is not in need at least of a smile and cheerful word, if not a helping hand up or a merciful hand out?  And of course, in just a few more minutes, he will come among us in the Sacrament of the Altar, in the most ordinary of appearances, a bit of bread, a cup of wine, but really and substantially present among us.  Will we be prepared?

Again, it all depends on the orientation of our hearts – but that is determined by the degree to which we have understood the orientation of his heart, which is always to love, and to love to the end, giving himself on the cross for the life of the world, for my life and your life.  When that cup of suffering was placed before him, he was ready and prepared to drink it.

And how did that happen?  We of course are curious about our Lord’s childhood and young adulthood before that fateful day when he presented himself to John for baptism in the river Jordan.  But the Gospels are all but silent.  St. Luke simply places him within the context of the Holy Family and tells us that “he increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.”  Which is simply to say that Jesus learned love precisely in the midst of the everyday tasks and joys and sorrows of a normal life, as a faithful and obedient Son, and if not at work in the field or grinding at the mill, then in St. Joseph’s carpenter’s shop.  He cheerfully and diligently gave himself to his work in love and service to others, and thereby to his Father in Heaven.  At his work, day by day, for love, he hammered in nails, and when the day came, for love, he offered himself up and the nails were driven into him.

Well, tomorrow is Monday, and we are back to it: the field, the mill, the carpenter’s shop; the classroom, the office, the kitchen.  And Jesus will be there.  Let us watch for him and love him, so that on that great day when he returns in power and great glory, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.  Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

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