Monday, November 04, 2013

Spooky Time Has Begun

The Four Horsemen, probably by Boris Vallejo
November is a peculiar time for churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary.  From All Saints forward, the lessons take an ominous tone, as they dwell on the completion of God's promise and -- depending upon one's perspective -- the coming of the Messiah, or his return in glory, perhaps even the end of history and of the world as we know it.

In the next few weeks we will be asked to meditate upon Paul's eschatology, as it is worked out in 2 Thessalonians and the magnificent "Cosmic Christ" passage of Colossians 1:15-20; upon Malachi's promise that "the day is coming like a burning oven" when the Sun of Righteousness shall arise to heal the world; upon Jesus himself talking about the Day of Resurrection, about the destruction of the Temple and a time when his followers are called to endure terrible things as they await their final salvation.  It is tempting to say that these themes reach a climax with the observance of Christ the King, but in fact they continue into Advent, both with the Messianic promises of Isaiah and John the Baptist, and with the Lord's own reminder that he will return "at an unexpected hour." (The old lectionary likewise drew on the "little apocalypse" of Matthew 24-25).

We called it "ominous." To many listeners, these lessons will sound grim and even frightening.  They shouldn't, of course; but it is human nature that they will.

This pre-Advent season has no name, at least so far as we are aware.  In our hearts, we call it Spooky Time, but that probably would not fly with the masses.  So we just just call it "November."

That November, in particular, should be the time when these lessons are read seems to reflect the northern-hemisphere bias that shapes so much of the church calendar.  This is the month -- in northern climates -- when trees burst out in a final blaze of glory, then drop their leaves and stand like gray skeletons against the gray horizon.  By the end of November, the world seems cold and even dead.

Among the little-remarked treasures of the ELCA's liturgical corpus (yes, there are such treasures) is the Eucharistic Prayer appointed for November in With One Voice.  Like all the WOV prayers, it is brief; also like them it displays a sort of prosodic tone-deafness.  Still, we find the opening apt and moving:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal:     surrounded by evil and bordered by death     we appeal to you,     our Sovereign, our Wisdom, and our Judge.
We praise you for Christ, who proclaimed your reign of peace     and promised an end to injustice and harm.
The word "death," it should be observed, occurs rarely in the liturgy.  This is strange, considering how much of Christian theology -- indeed, how much not only of religion in general but of all human endeavor -- is shaped by our awareness, and typically dread, of death.  Law?  Medicine?  Politics?  Theater?  Death permeates them all, and drives them to their greatest degrees of intensity.

But, perhaps because of a crippled popular deeply committed to denying the reality of death, our liturgy makes little of it.  So we wonder whether, when the November prayer is prayed, whether that word does not drop into the nave like a stone, breaking through the silent complacency of the assembly, rousing them from their revery either of boredom or confusion and shaking them awake with a reminder that all this is about something real.

We look forward to this spooky time each year.  Maybe we've just spent too much time in Gothic churches, looking at the morbid little displays one finds tucked away at side altars, the mutilated corpses of beloved saints and graphic statues of flagellants.  Or maybe it is that the same reason that so many pastors enjoy preaching at funerals:  because the frank acknowledgment of death's presence in the world throws the Gospel promise of new life into sharper relief.

Anyway, Spooky Time has arrived.  Don't waste a moment of it.

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