How do we live, preparing for the future? A more problematic question is how do we live while waiting in the face of the unknown? For many of us our lives are lived in anticipation of the unknown. The readings for the First Sunday in Advent present in different ways the question, so how do we live in the present-time with expectations that point us towards the a future, while our memories keep us prisoners of our past? Between the past and the future lies the uncertainties of the present-time.
For most of us, our attitude towards time is at best ambivalent. We behave as if past, present, and future are insulated from each other as if contained in water-tight compartments . We say, oh that’s in the past to imply it is something done and dusted and recognising that nothing now can be done about to change it, Likewise, we regard the future in much the same way as we regard the past. We might say of the future, oh the future hasn’t happened yet it’s not real, it’s only a dream.
These ways of treating the past and the future are our attempts to bring some order and clarity to our experience of the flow of events in the present. Yet, time remains an ambivalent experience for us. The definition of ambivalent is, to have mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Both mixed feelings and contradictory ideas describe our relationship to time.
T.S. Eliot, is a poet whose work is familiar to many of you. For some of you he may be only a name you have heard or not heard before. Eliot explores the ambivalence of time in much of his poetry. Note a moment ago i used the present tense, Eliot is a poet. Is he a poet or was he a poet? See how our ambivalence towards time expresses itself in such ordinary figures of speech. Anyway, Eliot explores our ambivalence towards time in passages like this one from his poem Little Gidding, the finale to his Four Quartets:
What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. … We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.
The past finds echo in our expectations of the future. In the yet-to-become-known we encounter the unresolved projections of that which is now only half remembered. That’s the way the human mind works. It pattern matches experience so that present experience and future expectations are often strongly conditioned by projections of the way the remembered, or half remembered, or apparently forgotten, still actively influences us. This is the process Freud identified so clearly as the operation of the unconscious. Through the content of the unconscious our past maintains its power over present and our future. The unconscious mind is like a computer hard drive. We think something is erased because we have tried to get rid of it and no longer see it. Yet, it is nevertheless still there awaiting our unpleasant rediscovery when we least expect it.
The season of Advent is the start of a new Church year. Advent is for many of us our most favorite season. Advent evokes for me a memory of all those new beginnings. I especially recall when at the beginning of the new school year opening my new exercise book for the first time. I can see the pale green lines on the page and thin red line of the margin. This is a memory of expectation as I survey the virgin page lying before me.my expectations are high for it has yet to be despoiled and defaced by my untidy handwriting with its inevitable multitudinous crossings out. A memory long forgotten, coming to mind and coloring my expectations and experience of the season of Advent.
Advent is a season of expectation, preparation, and waiting. Expectations are often-times difficult. How can we know what we expect will really come to fruition? Preparation is somewhat easier. At least in preparation we have something to do. In contrast waiting is an experience that is the most difficult to tolerate. The Old Testament lessons for the next four weeks are from the prophet Isaiah. We might call this Isaiah’s futuristic dreaming of a messianic age, expected but yet to arrive. Isaiah’s dream of the future is set within a present context of high anxiety. The Assyrians are at the gates of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah is inevitable.
Advent is Expectation
In the midst of political and national turmoil, Isaiah dreams of a time when the improbable will happen as part of a new messianic age. Jerusalem, no longer beleaguered and awaiting destruction will be raised up for all the nations to stream towards. Even more improbable is his dream of warfare ending and the striking image of swords beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. He ends this chapter with an invitation: come house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Put another way I believe that through Isaiah’s prophecy God is saying to us: Come Trinity, let us plant in the present-time, the seeds of our audacious dreaming of our future.
Isaiah’s dream is a dream of a future that has yet to become fully realized and yet, because he has the courage to dream it, becomes already known. It is a vision of a future that dares to break free of imagination limited by our memories of the past. Although on a chronological level, Isaiah speaks to us from our collective past, we hear his voice speaking directly to our own experience of the present. The context changes, yet the challenges remain the same. We live in a time when to have a positive dream for our collective future feels like a forlorn hope we can’t afford. Instead we feel we need to prepare for the worst as we survey a future where:
- The post WW II stability of the Pax Americana is fraying. New and ominous forces, both terrorist and nationalist, rise to threaten our world order. The world order of Pax Americana, has for 70 years ensured stability and security. However a stability and security dictated on our own terms.
- In the face of apocalyptic visions of the future the cohesion of our nation fractures. We argue over the best way to address our problems. More serious still, we disagree about the nature of the problems facing us. Some argue for budget reduction while others advocate the urgent need to renew our vital infrastructures.
- We hotly contest among ourselves about the reality of global warming and the degradation of the world environment as natural disasters of epic proportion ravage the planet. We argue even though its plain to all that we are not insulated from the frightening power of nature as parts of the country are ravaged by flood, wind, fire, and drought.While some lobby for policies that might avert what they see as a coming environmental catastrophe, others argue that continued degradation of the environment is a price worth paying to maintain our competitive economic edge.
- We are witnessing a resurgence of institutional racism many of us thought long dead and buried; our forgotten past rising to haunt our present.
- Economic disparities increase to alarming proportions. The prosperity of the many is sacrificed to the profits of the few. A recent survey reported by PBS News reveals that 65% of Americans, both Republicans as well as Democrats, favor an increase of the minimum wage to $10 an hour, with only 28% opposing this measure.
- Our own middle class dreams of financial security evaporate before our eyes. We are not only fearful for our children’s futures, we are baffled and disquieted by the cynical indifference of our society as a whole to the future of our children as commitments to education and jobs for the young are abandoned in the face of economic expediencies.
- Our political system becomes even more corrupted by unfettered restraint on the financial influence of vested interests. As the conservative New York Times journalist and commentator David Brooks noted recently, the problem for the political system is not the amount of money pouring in, but the lack of transparency, so that we can’t know who it is that is wielding undue influence over our politicians.
Advent is Preparation
So what is the point of Advent’s message of preparation in the face of our tendency to be so fearful in the face of the yet-to-become-known? The Lectionary readings for Advent all echo the common theme of the need to let our dreams of a future time inform the way we live in the present.
The present is where we live sandwiched between our past and our future . We get on with living as well and as creatively as we can in the present-time. The Apostle Paul reminds his readers that: You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Jesus advocates that as in Noah’s day his disciples should go-on eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, images of getting-on with normal life. The seeds of future hopes are planted in the ordinariness of the present. The present is also the place where we struggle with the past is played out. Our half remembered and forgotten memories project their power to dictate our future. To dream new dreams we must first become aware of and break the shackles of memory. Isaiah’s vision speaks to us down the ages because it is an invitation to walk in the light, not hide in the dark. It is an invitation to not fear to dream the seeming impossible.
Advent is a time for expectation of things to come. Advent is a time for preparation, which means having the audacity in the present time to plant the seeds that will one day mature into our future hope. Advent means consciously rejecting the self-protective foreboding that results when we can only see into our future through the prism of our past.
Advent is Waiting
However, most of all Advent is a time for patient waiting. In my experience waiting is the hardest thing to tolerate. Yet, the ability to courageously wait is the hallmark of our task in this present-time. The Theologian Paul Tillich put it beautifully when he wrote:
Although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting, says Tillich, anticipates that which is not yet real. That is, if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait, Tillich says, in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. Theology of Culture as compiled at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=378&C=83
In another of his poems from the Four Quartets, titled East Coker, T.S. Eliot writes that to hope is often going to be to hope for the wrong thing. To love will inevitably be at some level a love of the wrong thing. Eliot understands the power of memory to dictate that the mind and heart recognize only what they already know. So is loving and hoping and believing a fruitless task? No, he answers for: the faith and the love and the hope are realized only in the waiting!