Saturday, December 02, 2006

To make an end is to make a beginning.

For years I have found the Church's liturgical calendar more helpful than the secularized Gregorian calendar in reckoning my place in the temporal order. The liturgical seasons have an effect on me that may be slightly more subtle than the effect of the earth's four seasons, but which nevertheless works at a deeper level.

This being the case -- and with considerable thanks to the way the liturgical cycle resonates in the monastic liturgies at St. Joseph's Abbey -- I'm keenly aware of the transition now underway from Ordinary Time to Advent, today being the last day of Ordinary Time and tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent.

The theme of the last weeks of Ordinary Time is the Apocalypse, the end time, Christ's Second Coming, the Final Judgment. Both the scriptures and the prayer life of the Church often speak of this end time in terms at the same time ominous and expectant. Christ, we are repeatedly assured, will "come in glory," revealing the grandeur that was hidden from all but a few (at the Transfiguration, for instance) when he lived among us.

I have a slightly different take on this theme. For I imagine that the "glory" revealed by the Second Coming will not be the worldly glory that comes easily to mind when we hear references to it in the scriptures and liturgy. As I think of it, if anything Christ will come in an even more humble state; the difference between his earthly life and his second coming will be that at his second coming what will be revealed is precisely the glory inherent in his humility. The judgment that will fall upon all who behold him will be to fully realize that the first will be last and the last first, that humility and glory are one and the same thing.

The last Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Roman lectionary is the Feast of Christ the King, at which it is important to remember that His kingdom is "not of this world," not only because it is eschatological, but because it is the inverse of worldly kingdoms.

Thus it is that the apocalyptic theme on which the Church's "Ordinary Time" concludes is an appropriate prelude to the Advent theme, which is so magnificently expressed in the Lucan infancy narrative with its contrast between Caesar ("the divine") Augustus arrayed at the center of his luxurious Empire with the pomp and worldly glory of his powerful office, on one hand, and the helpless infant born in a cow-shed in the remote and culturally inferior (by Roman assessment) backwater of the Empire, on the other. This is the beginning of the first coming, but it is harbinger of the Second Coming as well.

In East Coker, T. S. Eliot wrote:
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.
Happy Advent.

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