Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Whence And The Whither: A Night Bird's Flight From And Into Mystery

During the Dark Ages in England,
Anglo-Saxons would gather at night in a mead hall
to keep safe and warm by the hearth.
The halls were large one-room stone buildings with windows
high up for ventilation.

In those days, one Anglo Saxon said,
“Our life is like a bird that flies in through one window
of the hall and then through another
back out into the night.
For that brief moment, we see it.
It comes and just as suddenly it is gone.
We do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Such is a life. For a short time, we see it.
It flies in from the darkness of the unknown,
then back out into that darkness.

The Anglo Saxon who compared life to the night bird said
that if this new Christian religion can tell us something more,
give us some sense of things, some hope,
then we should listen to them.

Where do we come from? Where do we go?
The German theologian, Karl Rahner, said
these are the two great questions:
the whence and the whither?
“Whence comest thou? Whither goest thou?”

Where did the universe come from?
“The Big Bang,” we say.
But where did the matter and energy that blew up come from?
And where is the universe going?
It has a story. It has evolved into an orderly cosmos,
produced life, intelligence, creativity, art -- even religion.
What is the universe becoming?
What are we becoming?
The ultimate source of things, the ultimate source of our lives,
is as mysterious as a moonless midnight
on the moors of 7th Century England
– the darkness from which the night bird came.
The ultimate destiny of our lives and of this universe
is just as unknown and unknowable.
The great whence and the great whither.

Our reason can give us hints about our origin and our destiny.
The miraculous and wonderful order of creation
tell us that there is some rhyme and reason to it all.
The direction of evolution from inanimate slime to amoebas
and on to greater and greater complexity, creativity,
and intelligence
– that trajectory says something about our destiny.

But we cannot prove our origin or our destiny with facts.
When it comes to the big questions, the whence and the whither,
all answers are matters of faith.
Faith is a belief we choose to accept.
It’s a decision we make in our hearts.
It’s the attitude we take toward the mystery
from which we come and to which we are going.

Karl Rahner said that our name
for the whence and the whither of life is “God.”
Calling the mystery “God” is a way of saying we trust it.
We believe the mystery is friendly,
that the unknown which made all this
will not abandon its creation.
We believe the mystery loves what it has made
and will bring the universe to a good end,
will bring us to a good end.

As wonderful as this world is,
we know it isn’t what it ought to be.
There’s so much disappointment, so much sorrow,
so much pain.
Most of all there is death.
We lose the ones we love
and knowing our own death is sure as the sunset
makes us wonder if our brief lives even matter,
wonder if we will be forgotten
so we might as well have never lived.

If we think that our destiny is death,
then we are apt to feel despair.
St. John the Divine lived in a time of despair.
Christians were being slaughtered wholesale
by the Emperor Domitian.
Even Nero had not done anything like this.
The Christians who survived were selling out the faith
to save their skins.
So the religion, to which John had devoted his life,
stood on the brink of extinction.
Now he had been exiled to the lonely island of Patmos
where he lived as a hermit in a cave.
John was likely on the verge of despair
when he had a series of visions.
His visions swept through his consciousness
like a night bird flying through an Anglo Saxon Hall.

His visions were images and words from the Hebrew Bible.
They were a mix of something old and something new.
They weren’t all happy thoughts.
Many of his visions were nightmares.
Who wouldn’t have nightmares given the horror
of the persecution?
He had dreams of war, famine, and disaster.

But then came the final vision he describes in today’s lesson.
After all the death and destruction, John saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The God who created heaven and earth in the first book of the Bible
did it again in the last book.
Only this time he made it better.

The creator had not forgotten the blueprint of life.
He had not forgotten the design of beauty.
He had not forgotten us.

“See the home of God is among mortals.”John heard a voice say.
“He will dwell with them. . . and . . . be with them.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

“The first things have passed away.”
This life we are living is a rough draft.
This world is rough draft.
The real life is yet to come.
That is our destiny.

Then in John’s vision, the Lord says,
“It is done. I am he Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
God is the whence and the whither, our source and our destiny.
We came from God. We return to God.
And what is the God?

We must not say too much because God is a mystery
dark as a moonless midnight on the English moors.
But God is not a cold and barren darkness.
God is not a lifeless or a killing darkness.
The God John met in his visions
is the same God revealed in the man Jesus
– a God of life and love, of healing and mercy
– a God who does not cast us out,
but redeems and embraces his children.

Brothers and sisters, we have to pay attention to the things of today.
As one of our closing prayers says, we have to do
the work God has given us to do.
But as we live in the here and now,
we need to know where we come from
and where we are going.

It’s like driving through Ely.
To know which way to turn,
it makes a difference
whether you are coming from Caliente or Lund,
and whether you are heading for Elko or Tonopah.
To live well in the here and now,
we need to know where we come from
and where we are going.
We believe the God of love, hope, light, and beauty
is our Alpha and our Omega,
the beginning and the end.

Glory to God whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.