One of the wonderful things about being a mother and grandmother is the chance to read stories to children. So many wonderful stories I have read to children at bedtime and in the car as we were traveling – stories that I would never have even known existed had I remained always in the adult world. Just last night I sat up and re-read the final chapters of The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan. It is a story I read with my daughter when it was new. Now my grandson has just finished reading it and I re-read it so I could talk with him about it as he enjoyed it for the first time. (Besides that, it’s a really good story with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that I had long ago forgotten.)
The Lightning Thief is the first of several series of stories that take as their inspiration Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian mythologies – the stories of the gods and their interactions among themselves and with humans. This particular story is about a boy who discovers he is a demi-god whose father is Poseidon, god of the seas. A favorite tool of one of the gods has been stolen and a war is about to break out among them if the tool is not found and returned. Among the gods, it is widely believed that our hero has stolen the tool. The story goes from there as he discovers who he is, what has been stolen, who is believed to have it, where it actually is, and whether it can be recovered in time to prevent the war. A marvelously impossible and improbable quest for a group of children in middle school to engage upon, it is an engrossing story for the reader to share.
This story came to mind this morning as I was thinking about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. It’s a brand new year for us as Church and once again we hear apocalyptic writings of things that are to come at the end of time. We’ve had a lot of these readings lately. One year ends with them and the new year begins with them.
Why do we have this kind of writing anyway? Why not just state clearly that at some future date the universe will end. At some date each of us will end our lives here. At some point we will meet the Lord. Earthquakes happen. Climate fluctuates over time. Storms come and go, both literally and figuratively. And so forth…
We have these kinds of stories because our understanding of the world is incomplete. Humans have existed for thousands of years, but much of what we know of how the geology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and inter-personal relations behind our daily experience operate has only been uncovered in the last few hundred years. There is still much we don’t know or understand.
As an anthropologist, I turn to a concept that I find helps explain our human use of stories to make sense of what we don’t understand or can’t find words to express. Anthropologists speak of “explanatory systems” that take a physical or social reality and place it within a larger context.
Humans wonder “why” things happen the way they do. Why do we have earthquakes? Why do we have storms? Why is the weather good some days and terrible other days? Why do people care for each other? Why do we have enemies? Why do some people die young? Why do old people spend so much time telling the same stories over and over? In the words of a song originally written by Woody Guthrie and adapted for children by Anne Murray, Why Oh Why, we ask again and again “Why does… Why can’t… Why won’t…” Eventually, the question becomes, “Why won’t you answer my question?” and the response is, “Because I don’t know the answer, Good night, good night.”
We don’t know the answers, so we humans tell stories and sing songs.
In our Judeo-Christian tradition, there is only one God. There are no demi-gods as there are in so many other traditions. Our God speaks through humans. Our God speaks directly to humans. God acts in human history. God loves humans and all of creation so much that God enters into creation as a human being. As a human being, God experiences a complete human life, including the joys and sorrows of life and death with family and friends, unexpected happy surprises, hope, love, suffering, fear, and death.
Yet there are things that happen in our lives and history that are hard to explain. For our ancestors in faith, the answer was clear. God intervened. In times of war, God acted to protect the armies of God’s people. When the people were not faithful to their agreement (the Covenant), God punished them by allowing their enemies to conquer and send them into exile. Yet always, God was there, ready to forgive and bring them back to a good relationship between humans and their God.
The apocalyptic literature read today tells symbolically of this relationship. Jeremiah (33:14-16) recalls the promise God made to King David that a savior would rise from his descendants and do what was right in the land. The country would be secure and the capital city, Jerusalem, site of the temple in which God dwelt in a special way among the people, would become known as “The Lord is our justice.” The people are in exile in Babylon, but the promise is made yet again. There is a reason for hope and expectation of a better future.
Our Gospel story is told by St. Luke, a man who was not part of Jesus’ original circle of friends. Yet Luke (21:25-28, 34-36) has heard and tells the story of Jesus’ description of the coming end of time, when the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven. We heard this story from St. Mark two weeks ago. Luke encourages his readers to be awake, vigilant at all times, prayerful for the strength to remain faithful when things are going badly around us. Nations and peoples, and even the physical world itself, will be in disarray, but we can be assured that redemption is at hand. It’s a time for hope and expectation of the coming of the Son of Man – the one who saves us.
The early Christian community expected the second coming of Jesus very soon after the Resurrection. After all, the final reconciliation between humans and God had been achieved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. St. Paul (1 Thes 3:12-4:2) also expected the second coming to be imminent, but in the meanwhile, it was important to live a life of loving care as a community. He reminds the people of Thessalonica to behave themselves! He asks the Lord to increase the love they have for each other and strengthen their hearts, so they will be holy and ready when God comes with all his holy ones.
We too live in difficult times. Our world is filled with strife. We argue over immigration, vaccinations, mask mandates, borders, national sovereignty, taxation, the role of government, and on and on. How do we as a Christian community live in love for and with each other? How do we deal with our brothers and sisters with whom we find ourselves in serious disagreement? How do we find ways to address problems that threaten us all, when we can’t even agree on what has caused them?
I don’t have any easy answers. I’m not sure there are any easy answers. But I know in the depths of my heart that we must continue to respect and love each other. We must care for each other and work to find common ground. We are called as members of Christ’s Body to be one with all the rest of our sisters and brothers, working together to bring the peace of Christ to this world.
Happy New Year. May the Lord’s Peace dwell deep within each of us and shine forth in our lives today and through the year we are just beginning.