I love words, and my hope for language is always that it might elevate, inspire, and illuminate—not frighten, insult, and obfuscate. What draws my attention in this year’s gospel readings for Advent are the words words, word, exhortations, and greeting. I hope you will reflect on them too this Advent season as we move through our troubled times and busy days toward the lowly, the holy, and the hope of the Word-made-flesh that dwells among us.
ADVENT WEEK I Lasting Words Luke 21:33. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
I spent one recent day, a day when headlines were particularly partisan and vitriolic, mostly in my car, following the ongoing breaking news by satellite radio. The language and images were ugly, oppressive, demoralizing, and exhausting. It felt at times apocalyptic.
I stayed that night with my younger son in Richmond, gladly putting current events aside for a few hours to spend time with my granddaughters. I expected that, after dinner, the girls would go off to do their homework, their parents would go about their own preparations for the next day, and I would retire to the guest room where I would again tune in to the day’s unfolding stories. That plan changed, however, when sixteen-year-old Jane asked to talk with me after dinner. She needed to interview someone for a class project about “The Meaning of Life.” Would I be willing? Heavens, what grandmother could resist an invitation like that?
For the next hour and a half, she and I sat on the soft carpet on her bedroom floor. I don’t know how she ultimately distilled all we covered for her report, but I found the conversation refreshing and heartwarming—and devoid of current events. We talked about maintaining connections with people we love, and with the earth that sustains us, and with our own selves. We talked about cherishing the natural world, and learning from it. We talked about creative expression through the arts and considered various ways creativity can enrich friendships, family relationships, work, and leisure. We talked about the Divine Force—however one experiences and names it—that flows through us and all of life. We talked about “giving back” in gratitude for all that life offers.
What a different conversation it was from those I had listened to all day—different in tone, pace (we spoke slowly and thoughtfully, allowing silences for thinking), and vocabulary. The radio words had made me feel fractured, tense, despairing. The words Jane and I used were restorative, filled with gentleness, light, and hope. After we wrapped things up, I did not turn on the news again until the next afternoon, long after I had returned home.
Like that day, the gospel for this first Sunday in Advent (Luke 21:25–36) begins with apocalyptic images. Jesus is speaking of “distress among nations” and people who “will faint from fear and foreboding.” His words sound contemporary and feel familiar. But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. Rather he promises that redemption is drawing near. He uses images from the natural world as signs of hope. He promises, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” At the close of the passage he sounds a familiar Advent theme: “Keep awake.”
How shall we keep awake this year? How shall we be true to our own selves, while searching for the spirit that connects us all as one? One way might be to talk with someone about the meaning of life. I invite you to try that. Ask someone to meet you this week for coffee—or perhaps over Skype or Face Time. Agree, for thirty minutes or an hour, to put aside the seasonal rush as well as current events and politics. Consider doing this with someone of a generation different from yours. What values do you share? What thoughts do have in common? Where do your ideas differ? Pay attention to the words you use as well the ideas and questions you raise. What do you long for? What hopes and dreams endure for you? How do they shed light on the meaning of life? How might they lead you toward the stable?