“Gather up the fragments”
T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland, written in 1922, captures an important feature of our modern world. The poem explores through a series of evocative images a world which has been largely destroyed through the madness of war, particularly the First World War, the catastrophic effects of which we are still beginning to try to comprehend and which has largely defined the whole of the twentieth century and carries over into our present anxieties. Near the end of the poem, he captures that world past and present in an arresting image: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The idea is that all that is left of the whole of a culture and a civilization are fragments, bits and pieces to which we cling in the memory of something which once was but is no longer. All is in fragments. All is in ruins.
We, too, are fragmented, unsure and uncertain about ourselves as selves having been willingly or unwillingly reduced to the bits and bytes of the digital economy, little more than clickbait for the benefit of our corporate masters. But over and against Eliot’s image of clinging to “fragments shored up against our ruins,” Jesus offers another image, the image of redemption, of the gathering up of “the fragments that remain that nothing be lost.” A gathering up that has to do with the sense of wholeness and completeness; in short, salvation.
This Sunday is about endings and beginnings in and through which we might begin to find our true end, not in the ruins but in God. How to begin and how to end and how to begin again? These are some of the questions which this Sunday presents to us, The Sunday Next Before Advent. Its very designation hints at the question. We come to the end of the church year and so to the beginning of the next. We stand on the brink of the Advent Season but at the same time at the end of the Trinity Season.
The point is that these times of transition speak profoundly to our lives in pilgrimage. In a way we are constantly turning back and turning towards what truly defines us, constantly circling around our spiritual identity in Christ in whose person God turns towards us.
For centuries, the Gospel for this Sunday was about the gathering up of the fragments from the banquet in the wilderness in Jesus’ feeding of the multitude, a theme of restoration and redemption, we might say. In our Canadian Prayer Book (1962), the Gospel reading was changed to this complex story about the disciples of John the Baptist becoming the disciples of Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist says, signaling his role in the Advent, the coming of Christ. It marks a kind of transition. “Come and see,” Jesus says to John’s disciples but only because he turns to them who are turning to him and asks them “what seek ye?” It is altogether about a kind of circling, a redire ad principia. That, it seems, is the real nature of our following Christ. It is about the nature of our being with him sacramentally and intentionally, our being gathered to Christ in and through the fragments of human experience. Such is the nature of our lives of faith. In a way it is a constant circling around, our circling around and into the mystery of God, and especially God with us in Jesus Christ.
The Trinity Season ends by bringing us to this constant beginning. The ending and the beginning are really the same. It is really all about our beginning and end in God. The patterns of the church year seek to gather us and to move us more fully and more deeply into the mystery of God with us.
We have in the lesson from Jeremiah the sense in which the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in “The Lord our Righteousness,” who gathers us to himself from the places of exile and ruin. This in turn complements the Gospel story about the disciples of John becoming the disciples of Jesus and wanting to abide with him.
“the author and the finisher of our faith,” as Hebrews puts it.
This Sunday awakens us to the meaning of the mystery of the Advent. It reminds us of the radical nature of Revelation. That is fundamentally about God’s turning to us; it signals the nature of the goodness of God which cannot lie hidden and concealed but must of its very nature disclose itself and make itself known. That is, in my view, the special wonder of this Gospel story. Jesus turns and in his turning to the disciples of John who are following him we have in nutsche the whole of the Gospel. God turns to us in our turning to him.
That moment is everything. It captures in a phrase the whole of our life with God in God and to God and as a result towards and with one another; a great piling up of prepositions that ultimately place with Christ. A new beginning, indeed, but also a complete ending. It is really all about our abiding in and with Christ who comes to us, he who is the Alpha and the Omega of our lives as the architecture of this building suggests in the very shape of the beams above our heads.
We come to the Advent of Christ only through the pageant of God’s being with us, feeding and nourishing us. Like children, we accept and take for granted all that is given to us. We need the wake-up call of this Sunday, sometimes called “stir-up Sunday”, to begin to appreciate more deeply and more fully the radical and unique nature of God’s turning to us in Christ Jesus. It is about nothing less than the real worth and truth of our being which is only found in God’s being with us. Such is the Advent of Christ but such, too, is his constant advent with us.
The only question is about us. Will we begin again in our seeking and knowing and loving of God or will we simply trudge along, bitter and buried in our own fears and anxieties, trapped in the rut of our same-old, same-old sins and follies, clinging desperately to the fragments of our broken lives? This Sunday is the wake-up call to the possibilities of a new and radical return to the God who constantly turns to us and seeks to gather us into his endless love for us. “The Lord of Righteousness” is the Christ who turns to us and asks us “what do you seek?” And then bids us “Come and see.”
In a way, this Sunday captures the whole of the pageant of the church year in our circling back and upon and into the mystery of God with us. It is altogether about redemption, about the gathering up of the broken fragments of our lives by Christ’s turning to us and turning us to himself. In him and in him alone we find our wholeness and completeness, our freedom and our dignity.
We come to an ending only to begin again and that is the glory and the blessing of this Sunday of transition. We have a God to turn to because he has turned to us to gather up the fragments of our broken and wounded lives. In him we find our health and salvation, if ever we will.
Gather up the fragments.
Fr. David Curry
Sunday Next Before Advent
November 26th, 2017