So here we are, coming to the conclusion of Advent with only one more candle to light and seven days till Christmas. Advent is countercultural. I’ve always treasured its invitation to stillness, quiet, and reflection during the pre-holiday madness.
It’s strange not being a cathedral dean or parish priest during this season. I miss the traditions of Advent: the great hymns and antiphons, the Sarum blue vestments, the Bible stories and characters of the season, the wreath with its four candles, St. Paul’s Christmas toy shop, Trinity’s Messiah Sing, and, yes, all the preparations for welcoming strangers and friends to church on Christmas. It makes me realize just how much the liturgical calendar, the rhythm of the church year, and the discipline of preaching and leading worship ordered my life.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to preach and teach this Advent at The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City (Long Island), New York, and Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas. While these two churches differ in liturgy, architecture, and demographics, they share a similar cathedral ethos in worship, witness, hospitality, and service. And when you walk through their doors, you know that you’re in an Episcopal Church, so it feels like home.
Preaching on the second and third Sundays of Advent, I had the privilege of engaging one of my favorite characters in scripture—John the Baptist—a character that I think speaks to us all, regardless of religious identity. What follows is a synopsis of these two sermons.
For me, Advent is best described by Alfred Delp, a 20th century German priest executed by the Nazis for his participation in the Resistance movement. From prison, he wrote, “Advent is a message that shakes us up so that we will come to know who we are and to whom we belong.”
He continued: “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up. Where life is firm, we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it.”
I came to a deeper appreciation of this Advent message when I heard the doctor say, “Tracey, you have dementia, probably Frontotemporal Degeneration.” I was shaken to my very core, as my life had suddenly become unstable and my future uncertain.
It felt as if John the Baptist had walked into that doctor’s office, ripped apart the fabric of my life, and confronted the essence of my identity. For years, I’d preached that if Jesus was a carpenter, then his cousin John was a demolition contractor. If Jesus was the bearer of a new day, then John was the wake-up call. I’m here to tell you that Jesus is the way (but not the only way) to new life, and his forerunner John is the great interrupter of our old lives.
Meeting John is like waking up to a cold shower or an assaulting alarm clock. It’s like having your mother scrub your skin raw after an evening of playing hide-and-go-seek in poison ivy. It’s what happens when you encounter real poverty for the first time, and you realize how much stuff you have. It’s how you feel when you finally get in touch with your own prejudice and bias—you know, all those “isms.” It’s when you’ve got it all together, and someone else—a child, parent, friend, or neighbor in trouble—turns your life upside down. John’s baptism is hearing the doctor tell you that you have an incurable and untreatable disease and that it’s probably time to step down from your job and get your affairs in order.
John’s baptism of awakening often leads to frightening places where we realize that we are not immortal, invincible, or God-only wise. Instead, we come to an understanding that we are mortal with fragile and often foolish lives.
Repentance is the turn-around that follows the crash; it’s the rebuilding that follows the demolition, the construction that follows the destruction. Repentance is a change of course, a matter of being grasped by God—picked up and put down—so that everything looks and feels different, a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
Singer-songwriter Carole Etzler wrote, “Sometimes, I wish my eyes hadn’t opened, but now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them.” Repentance is seeing your life or somebody else’s with new eyes, then letting go of old patterns, behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives and beginning to create new ones.
Two years into our pilgrimage with dementia, Emily and I now find ourselves dwelling in C.S. Lewis’ metaphor of the “living house” as we try to construct a rich and full life. In his seminal work, Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it.
As some of you have heard, we are trading our dream house overlooking the lake for an old house in a quiet neighborhood where we intend to live out this next chapter of life.
Our plan was to create a first-floor master bedroom and bath and a front porch to watch the world go by. But now, in order to build our little addition, contractors are getting ready to knock our house about in ways that we had not imagined. As the old Yiddish proverb says, “We make plans. God laughs.”
That’s how it is with repentance. We offer up our lives to God, with all of its brokenness and all of its mess, and God responds (probably with a smile on her face), “I forgive and I love you. Now, get on with making amends and living anew.”
The remarkable thing about repentance is that we get to do it over and over again. Life is full of turning points, both large and small. If we miss a turn, or if we start to back track, the opportunity for repentance will present itself again and again. I guess God realizes that we never quite get it.
When the demolition is complete and the dust settles, when the storm has passed and the waters recede, when the illness is over and you start to feel like you might live, when the old pattern is really gone and you’re looking at a blank palette—then, and only then, can that re-construction begin in earnest; then, and only then, can new life and new patterns appear. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and we just have to be patient and wait.
Friends, when life feels insecure, uncertain and unstable—when all seems to be on the brink of falling apart—trust and believe that God is rebuilding your “living house” and that instead of being made into a decent little cottage, God is constructing a palace—better than anything you ever dreamed or imagined is possible—in which the Holy One intends to dwell.