Nov. 28, 2021
The first week of Advent is always an opportunity to talk about time. And that’s because its theme – year after year – is apocalyptic. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” says Jesus in Luke’s gospel. “The powers of heaven will be shaken and people will faint for fear of what it coming!” We tend to think of apocalyptic time as end-time, second coming, final victory – a time of restoration and a culmination that is on its way but is not-yet.
And, that’s because we think of time as a line. We experience time as a progression of one moment to the next stretching out from beginning to end. But, of course, God exists beyond time. God holds all of creation – including time – in the eternity that is God. And so, God turns the time that we see as a line on its axis so that what God sees is just a little point. That tiny point, says Julian of Norwich, is like a little hazelnut in God’s hand. It is sustained, kept from falling away and apart, because God holds it and pours God’s love into it.
Julian, who lived in 14th & 15th century England, discovered this in a vision, which she spent fifteen years contemplating. Among the reasons she was challenged to comprehend her experience is because outward realities were brutal. The great plague was decimating the known world. Death and the fear of death colored life with a profound relentlessness. Dividing lines between religious elites, the nobility, and common people were severe and harsh. The King and his parliament issued a statute that anyone adhering to heretical beliefs would be “publicly burnt in a high place” as punishment and a deterrent. A decree later followed designating who was allowed to write or speak about God. You can be sure that commoners under a relentless feudal system designed to benefit the few in perpetuity were not on that list.
Life was remarkably difficult and unjust and yet Julian’s revelations gave her a God’s eye view of existence with a meaning that she sums up this way: “Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.”
Today’s apocalyptic texts are similar in the sense that they are offered in the midst of dire circumstances. For both Jeremiah and Luke the worst had happened: the temple had crumbled. The people of God were in disarray and into the mess comes the prophetic words of hope. “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in hope,” says Jeremiah. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near,” says Luke.
Hope almost only makes sense when it is offered over and against indications of its opposite. For Julian the hands that hold that fragile point were hands that were pierced on the cross out of love for creation. For the gospel writers whose apocalyptic proclamations we hear on the first Sunday of Advent every year those piercings are but scars on a resurrection that assures us that God’s way has won and God’s love cannot be undone. These words of apocalypse are about the End and the ultimate culmination of God’s plans for the love of creation, but they are also about the visions of that love that make that end a reality now, even in the midst of our own plague, and injustices, and difficulties.
My friend, whose book on Julian, I’m rereading tells the following story as she reflects upon the confusing matter of time from a God’s eye view. “It was one Christmas Eve eve, as we call Dec. 23 in my family. My younger daughter was about four years old, and we were reading a book from Grandma’s collection, about a puppy eager for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. She asked me if I believed Santa was coming in two days. I corrected her in my pedantic, theologian-mommy way that I believed Jesus was coming in two days.
‘But, Mommy, Jesus died. We learned that in Sunday school.’
‘Yes,’ I said ‘Jesus died. And Jesus was resurrected from the dead.’
‘That’s Easter!’ she remembered.
‘Was Jesus a baby when he was killed?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Jesus was a grown-up when he was killed.’
‘But Jesus is coming in two days, as a baby?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Mom,’ she sighed, exasperated, ‘I cannot think all of those things at the same time.’
“I also cannot think of all those things at the same time,” my friend concludes. (Interestingly, she suggests that that is one reason we celebrate the liturgical year. We proclaim all of these various truths about God throughout the course of a year, living them over the years as a cycle and not a progression. It is a ritualized way of living into God’s time as opposed to our own chronological time, which is kind of cool if you’ve never thought about the liturgical calendar that way before.)
Another thought that may help us with a hope-filled and God-like understanding of time is the thought that while only God can carry the full benefit of a divine perspective – while we still live through a progression of time with all of its ups and downs – what God gives us throughout that time is actually timeless. In other words, what God gives us is God. What God gives us is the only meaning that ever was or will be for the whole of creation – that is, as Julian so powerfully discovered – Love.
At our book group last week we were thinking about the theme of God’s giving. Our author spent some time considering all that we might be grateful for. He named things like the air we breath, and the sun that warms us, and the rain that nourishes our soils and gives us food. I confessed to the group that I sometimes struggle with these kinds of examples. Just think about that rain that nourishes us. Sometimes it is too scarce and it causes droughts. Sometimes it is too much and it causes floods or mudslides or other disasters. I don’t mean to be ungrateful or pessimistic, but I wonder if those sorts of things are the gifts that really sustain a sense of gratitude.
I’m more moved by another thought. This is what I shared with the group. Simon Tugwell writes, “If we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.”
“Even the apostles, it seems had not grasped what Jesus was really doing; even after the resurrection they still thought that if he was really the Messiah, it was about time he started overthrowing the Romans. It was only at Pentecost that they suddenly realized that what he was doing was essentially giving himself, giving his own life, giving his own Spirit. That is the gift that he has to give us. If we forget that, if we forget the poverty of God, then we shall keep demanding everything except the one thing that he has got to give us, and so our whole prayer life, our whole Christian life, will be off key. Whatever our problem is, whatever the anxiety we bring to the Lord, he has got only one thing to say, only one answer: himself.”
The thing is, this one answer gets to be the source of all our joy! This one answer is the timeless truth of our lives. It is endless eternal love holding us now and always. It has come; it is coming, and ultimately it is all that will be.
Advent asks us to awaken to it, to receive it, and even to find ourselves through our own acts of love in this world becoming a part of its proclamation.
 Amy Laura Hall, “Laughing at the Devil,” Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018, page 5.
 Amy Laura Hall, “Laughing at the Devil,” page 7.
 Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil, pages 30-31
 Simon Tugwell, “Prayer: Living with God,” Springfield: Templegate Publishers: 1975, pages 124-125.