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Climb into the Present

Jaime Bonney
Sun, Jan 01

New Years Day
Lessons: Revelation: 21 1-6a

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true."

In the year 2012, it comes to this: amid predictions of the end of the world, New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, and we read from the Apocalypse of John, John the Revelator, “the first heaven and the first earth was gone and the sea is now no more.” Apocalypses. In the list of strange theological topics, this is up there with the devil and angels and veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Unusual ground for us to tread, but this is a blue moon Sunday, a special feast day of the church, a day to stand on beginnings and endings, and wonder at the passage of time.

Are we supposed to be happy about the coming apocalypse? (And just for the record, I think it’s still a ways off yet.) John the revelator, the seer of this vision, seems to think so. And why? According to John, because this will be the time that God dwells with people, in the tabernacle, which as Dan preached just two Sundays ago, the coming of God into the tabernacle is also a metaphor for the incarnation, the birth of Christ into our very bodies, into the tents of our human flesh, filling up people with the divine. That happened already, Christmas morning long ago, and is happening even now. But we can’t go to the heaven that John envisions yet. When it comes to dealing with apocalypses, with the coming end of the world, the tabernacle seems like cold comfort to me. The day of God dwelling with us is the “already not yet” of delayed gratification, a comfort that is too distant to fully grasp in the moment. This is a future that I for one can see only dimly, though hopefully and expectantly, but Hollywood has done too good a job dramatizing the end of the world! What about right now?

Right now, on certain cold, crisp January days, it sometimes seems to me that time stands apart. In the clarity of cold air, it is as if the light bends just a little bit differently, and our own city seems sometimes to descend on us anew, practically frozen, before our eyes. You can look out across the river or the harbor and feel like you can see miles away. And granted today, despite some icy sidewalks, is not that sort of day, but yet it is a day to be beholders of our world. How far might we see, in this present moment, with that kind of clarity?

To me, the good news of knowing that the world, news flash, is going to end, is this. It is not just about the future, the sweetness of the new Jerusalem in which we will all one day dwell, it is the sweetness of knowing right now that time is no enemy of ours. Our entire scripture is a testament to the presence of God with God’s people in particular moments, it is the specificity, the now-ness, of our lives, and the fact that every moment of these particular lives that we have each been given matter, utterly matter, to God. We know that time begins, has a middle, and ends. And here we are in the middle of it. Without the apocalypse, without the beginning and ending, all the middle would be just so much the same.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man, “[this] is a religion of history, a religion of time. The God of Israel was not found primarily in the facts of nature. He spoke through events in history. While the deities of other peoples were associated with places or things, the God of the prophets was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting Himself in events of history rather than in things or places.”

Heschel was talking about Judaism, but in this regard Christians can equally receive his message about the meaning of scripture. He goes on to say that we understand revelation only if we can understand our lives and our existence not as a structure that fits into categories, but as a series of unprecedented events. This is, after all, what revelation means: something happens that has never happened before. Jesus is born in a manger, to dwell with people, to be a human being. To live and die, to have a beginning and an end, to be the alpha and the omega. This is why the apocalypse is a good thing! We have real substance, real now-ness. We are made in the image of God, and God is become flesh and dwells among us. We need apocalypses, I think, because it is so difficult to appreciate that it is a good thing to live moment by moment. So. Difficult. All of life changes, has seasons of pain, goodness, loss, gain. Of rushing to the store to find the perfect last-minute Christmas gift, of sacrificing one present moment for another one in the future. And when you do find the perfect gift, it’s all worth it. But most of our times of spinning through time are less perfect than that, right?

Heschel continues, “Unless we learn how to appreciate and distinguish moments of time as we do things of space, unless we become sensitive to the uniqueness of individual events, the meaning of revelation will remain obscure. Indeed, uniqueness is a category that belongs more to the realm of time than to the realm of space. Two stones, two things in space may be alike; two hours in a person’s life or two ages in human history are never alike. What happened once will never happen again in the same sense.”

Last week I went to visit my grandmother Betty. She is 98 ½ years old, and we talked briefly about the New Year. 2012. My grandmother was born in 1913. We appreciated time for the space of a moment’s silence, and then she told another tale in a long visit of long-ago tales, of her brother’s 4-door open-top Ford, which was lost to him in WWII when he left it in the barn of the family homestead in New Hampshire and his parents unwittingly sold the property while he was overseas! Now, this is not a story of revelation as far as I know, but while we think about our dreams for the future, our inevitable wonderings, hopes and fears, and the strangeness of standing at the edge of a new twelve months, don’t neglect to recount a tale of the past twelve, or of the past 1,182 months that compose 98 ½ years, and take in the sweep of history, and the fact that revelation comes along in that time. And then, perhaps this moment will have the clarity of a January day: not the blur of category and generalization, but the kind of awesome presence into which a new child who brought new light once was born, and children are born, and revelation will break in.

It is somewhat difficult to read Pablo Neruda in church. But I think I have found a good and proper moment and poem. As I come to a close, here is some “now” to appreciate. Neruda’s “Ode to the present.”

present moment,
as a wooden slab,
immaculate hour,
this day
as a new cup
from the past—
no spider web
with our fingers,
we caress
the present;
we cut it
according to our magnitude;
we guide
the unfolding of its blossoms.
It is living,
it contains
from the unrepairable past,
from the lost past,
it is our
growing at
this very moment, adorned with
sand, eating from
our hands.

Grab it.
Don't let it slip away.
Don't lose it in dreams
or words.
Clutch it.
Tie it,
and order it
to obey you.
Make it a road,
a bell,
a machine,
a kiss, a book,
a caress.
Take a saw to its delicious
And make a chair;
braid its
test it.
Or then, build
a staircase!

Yes, a
the present,
by step,
press your feet

onto the resinous wood
of this moment,
going up,
going up,
not very high,
just so
you repair
the leaky roof.
Don't go all the way to heaven.
for apples,
not the clouds.
Let them
fluff through the sky,
skimming passage,
into the past.

your present,
your own apple.
Pick it from
your tree.
Raise it
in your hand.
It's gleaming,
rich with stars.
Claim it.

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