Sermon by Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, December 6, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Classes ended this past Thursday, and now our students are studying for exams and writing their final papers. At this very moment, I expect, students are sitting in front of their computer screens, pondering their first sentences, searching for the right way to begin. As anyone who has ever written anything knows, the right beginning can set us off in a fruitful direction and make room for our ideas to unfold. But the wrong beginning can lead us into cul-de-sacs and dead-ends—as true for sermons as for term papers!
There’s a painting by Botticelli of St Augustine at his desk, broken quills and crumpled bits of papers scattered on the floor at his feet. I like to think that Augustine is searching in that painting for a way to begin his autobiography, his Confessions. He chose, in the end, not his own words, but the words of scripture: Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised. And that first sentence gave his story room to unfurl.
On the face of it, it feels like it should be easy to find the beginning of the story of a life: to begin with birth, and move forward. But as Augustine acknowledges by beginning the story of his life not with his birthday but with a passage of scripture written long before he was born, it’s not easy to find where the story of our lives begins. Chaplaincy training programs famously ask each applicant to write “a reasonably full account of your life.” Where to start? With one’s birth? With the lives of one’s parents? Grandparents? With the life of the world into which one is born? It can be hard to find the beginning of the story.
This seems to be a dilemma for the four gospel writers as well, because they each begin the story of the life of Jesus in a different way. The gospel of Matthew begins with a family tree that traces Jesus’s beginning back to Abraham and follows his lineage all the way to Mary and Joseph. Luke begins his gospel with stories about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. He locates them politically — “in the days of King Herod” — and religiously — Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Like Matthew, Luke surrounds Jesus with family and locates his beginnings not just in the branches his parents and relatives make on his family tree but in the stories of their own lives; Luke tells us long, detailed stories about Elizabeth, Zechariah and Mary before he even gets to the birth of Jesus. The beginning of the gospel of John is different still. John locates Jesus’s beginning in the beginning of existence itself. Drawing on the opening words of the book of Genesis, John writes that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In John’s cosmic account, Jesus is the beginning of everything.
Howard read for us this morning the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the earliest gospel we have, a gospel that Matthew and Luke used to write their own. Matthew and Luke are expansive; Mark tends to cut to the chase. With no birth narrative, no wise men or shepherds or special stars in the sky, Mark jumps right in with his first sentence: “The beginning,” he writes, “of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That simple opening might be seen as a very compressed version of the opening of all four gospels: Jesus begins in God. But Mark does open his gospel with a story: the story of John the Baptist who appears in the wilderness with no back story like the one he has in Luke. Mark seems to conjure him from a passage of scripture from Isaiah: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Mark finds the beginning of the story of Jesus not in his lineage, not in his family, not in the cosmos, but in the voice of one crying out in the wilderness — the human voice that rises up out of the desert of exile, bewilderment and pain in every age, in every place and time. A voice that expresses the longing of humanity for a future with hope, as the prophet Jeremiah puts it. A voice that cries out for a new beginning, suffused with God’s presence and the rejoicing of a regathered community. We can hear this longing in the passage from Isaiah that Alden read for us this morning: Comfort, o comfort my people; the glory of God will be revealed; and God will care for us like a shepherd with his flock.
I find this passage both consoling and painful at once: consoling, because it looks toward a day of joyful reunion; painful, because it is haunted by the experience of exile. These themes speak almost too precisely to our own moment in time. If we were to write a beginning for the coronavirus pandemic, where would we start? Would we begin with a patient zero on the other side of the world? Or with the defunding of public health preparation in our own country? Did the pandemic begin for us the first time we heard a new virus had been discovered? Or when we went to buy groceries and found empty shelves? Did it begin when we arrived at the Memorial Church for morning prayers and were met on the steps by Wes Conn telling us morning prayers had been suspended? For many of our students, the pandemic began the day they got an email saying that they had only a few days to pack up and say goodbye to their community, some for the last time. For too many others, the beginning of the story was the moment of diagnosis, of oneself or a loved one — the moment the pandemic became fearfully real.
Of course, it’s not the beginning of the pandemic we’re searching for in these days but its ending, the moment when we can return home to the loved ones we haven’t seen since last spring or even longer. When we can regather in our sacred spaces, in our classrooms, in our homes. When we can once again hug each other, sit with each other in the hospital, sing and laugh and cry together without fear of passing the virus to each other. Like the beginning, though, the ending won’t be easy to identify. The scientists tell us that the pandemic won’t suddenly stop; there won’t be a moment when we can all rush into the street and throw our arms around each other, although I confess I’ve imagined such a moment many times, and thought how wonderful it would be.
And yet, the situation we’re in will not last forever. Slowly, by fits and starts, things will begin changing. We have a future together. And that is what Isaiah calls us to remember and to prepare for. It’s what John the Baptist imagined as he called people to repent, to turn, to change. It’s what Jesus embodied when John held him beneath the water of the Jordan River and pulled him up again, renewed. These are the beginnings Mark invokes at the start of his gospel: beginnings that point us toward a future that we are called to turn toward, to build a way to. Prepare the way of the Lord, Isaiah says: the way of justice, the way of peace.
This is the call of Advent, itself a beginning, a chance to begin again. Our religious seasons rarely coincide neatly with the facts of our lives, and this year is no different: Advent meets us not at a new beginning, but in the middle of something terrible. But that’s the blessing of these seasons — they meet us year after year on the road of our lives, no matter what is happening, and they remind us that things could be otherwise. The prophetic voices of Advent resound in their wilderness and ours as well, calling us to repent, to change direction — to step off the paths that disregard the lives of others and enrich a few at the expense of the many, and to create new ways of living together in which every person’s dignity is reverenced, every person’s life cherished.
This is a dark season in every way: the days are shorter, the nights longer, and the pandemic grows daily more dangerous. The darkness of Advent, though, is not just the darkness of winter nights. The darkness of Advent is the sacred darkness of the womb — the place where we were knit together in secret, the place where John the Baptist first felt the future coming and leapt with joy to greet it. These weeks of waiting for something new to be born among us are beyond beginnings and endings. The call to prepare the way for the Lord won’t end with the coming of Christmas, or the arrival of a vaccine, or the inauguration of a new president. No matter who is in power, we will always have to be working together to make a path over which love can travel. For there is not a single moment of our existence in which Christ is not waiting to be born among us.