Pay Attention: December 15, 2016
My children are so sick of hearing me say this. But it’s pretty much the main lesson.
It is definitely the message of Advent. Slow down and pay attention.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Keeping watch is being the visible sentinel of security for the flock.
There’s an unexpected field just past a busy intersection on one of my normal driving routes. I’ve passed it hundreds of times, but never really paid attention. Last week my eye was caught by a beautiful oak standing sentinel—a flaming spire of beauty amidst the blight of power lines, winter trees and withered kudzu. It reminds me of a lovely poem by Andrew Hudgins in his collection After the Lost War.
Now I notice that oak every time. It is a sign of hope and a reminder of Advent. Slow down. Pay attention.
“This will be a sign for you” say the angels to the terrified shepherds.
Keeping watch also means paying attention, trying to be prepared for the unexpected, like, say, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. I imagine the shepherds falling to their knees, shielding their faces, and the exasperated angels saying, “Not us, you fools. Get up! The baby is the sign—the Savior is one of you, a poor kid far from home. Immanuel, God With Us. Go bow down to him.”
And they do. They find the baby and tell the exhausted parents that the heavens heralded their boy’s birth; Mary and Joseph hadn’t noticed because they were too busy paying attention to the birthing.
Correct grammar would have us say that the shepherds paid attention to the angels. They listened, heard, and responded. Done. Transactional.
But there’s more to attention than correct grammar. Attention can be transformational. Mary was visited by an angel, too. She payed attention, payed it out like fishing line, not pouncing on the sign, but giving it space and time to grow, reeling in the entirety of the marvel, and then sharing it with the whole world.
The wise men from the East payed attention to a star, paying out their attention a little at a time for two years before their Epiphany. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Here we are still in Advent. A time of waiting and watching, paying attention and looking for signs.
My first husband, Michael, was one of seven children, all of whom were married by the time I came into the family. With his father and the grandchildren to date, the immediate family was 21 people. That’s three complete volleyball teams, even without the oldest and youngest folks. We all spent the week between Christmas and Y2K New Year’s on Edisto Island in one huge beachfront house. This is a fun, energetic, exhausting, lively clan, and more than one brother thought to bring along a full-size shovel.
We dug out a wind-break shelter where, bundled up, we could watch the nephews from Montana swim in the ocean. We demarcated sand volleyball courts and the New Year’s Eve beach dance floor. And Philip planted the 20 foot trunk of a bleached, skeletal tree midway between low tide and the dunes. It was the tallest thing for miles. You could see it from either end of the beach. We could always find our way home.
As I sat huddled in the shelter watching my nephews one afternoon, I began to notice something. The tree became the place where people turned around. Walkers, runners, bikers—pretty much everyone circled the tree and started back the way they’d come. People silently, independently, conferred meaning to the anachronistic landmark.
Do you know the word anachronistic? Chronos is an Ancient Greek word meaning sequential, ‘chronological’ time. The prefix ‘ana’ means against or back. So anachronistic means something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time. The ancient Greeks contrast Chronos with Kairos, time measured by its ripeness, its transcendence. (Here’s a lovely post on the theme of Kairos.)
Maybe the sign or sentinel that we’re looking for in Advent is anachronistic. Maybe it’s a Kairotic sign: a momentous moment that is-of-and-not-of this Chronos.
The thing is, most folks don’t look for signs unless we need something or we’re lost. And then we want the signs to be obvious—the celestial announcement with clear instructions and no tricky, Delphic riddles. Or confirmation of what we already believe, like my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon when Calvin says, “It's hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”
Sometimes the sign is blindingly obvious. The newborn baby. The autumnal tree. The sanctuary cross.
Yes, the anachronistic, Kairos sign of Hope for me this Advent is the cross, the sign and sentinel of the crucifixion.
Advent is about waiting and hoping for the baby, yes. But digging into the theology of hope means digging into resurrection. Our hope isn’t in the baby Jesus; our hope is in the resurrected Christ. We rejoice in the baby (God With Us) because Incarnation presumes Resurrection. Let me say that again: Incarnation presumes Resurrection. Resurrection begins with Incarnation. It’s not Plan B. It’s the Logos of the universe. It’s God’s blueprint for all life.
Sometimes we’re looking for the sign: the dead tree that shows us where to turn around (repent!); the live tree that keeps watch and points to beauty; the tree on Calvary that signals the end of life as we’ve known it.
Sometimes we are the sign. As Christians, we believe we are to be the change that God wants to see in the world. Jesus never asks us to worship him. That’s an easy out. He calls us to follow him—to be the sign.
In one of my favorite lines from the musical Hamilton, Hamilton says to Aaron Burr, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”
What do you stand for?
Are you a visible sentinel of security? The place where home is? A reminder of beauty and hope in a dark and waiting world?
Jesus prays to God about us: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17: 23)
When we become one with Christ (and therefore with the Father and the Holy Spirit), then we are freed to be the sign to others that Incarnation-Death-Resurrection is the divine pattern of all life. Even mine. Even yours. Even the people you want incinerated by bolts of lightning. We all belong.
One more thing: The other nautical usage for pay is to paint with tar to make a joint watertight. See if you can do that with your attention, too.