Cycles of Death and Rebirth

In Ceremonies of the Seasons, Jennifer Cole writes, “All calendars are founded upon a wish to organize our experience of time into manageable units—especially the year, with its recognizable seasonal landmarks.” She goes on to point to a “curious contradiction” about the movement of time: We are surrounded by “reliable repetition” and “constant change.” Just think of the tidal and lunar cycles, animal migrations, and vegetation cycles that mark the passage of time with regularity.

As I read Cole’s observations, I pondered the fact that our calendars tell us stories, and those stories can in turn help us think about why we have developed elaborate rituals to mark some celebrations and not others.

I notice three things about November. First, in the United States, November contains three civic “high holy days”: Election Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving. Second, if we think globally, we’ll notice that during late autumn there are many celebrations that honor the ending of the harvest, the turning of life toward death, and the choice of good over evil—Day of the Dead, Halloween, Diwali, All Saints’ Day, and Chung Yeung are all examples.

In our society we idolize militarism and greed, routinely forgetting that our nation’s prosperity comes at the expense of others’ lives and welfare. Is there a way for us to recover a deep sense of the life-death-life cycle so central to our faith—and an inescapable part of all life—that can also birth social change?

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

November 4

Truthful Seeing

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4;

Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is one of the first Bible stories I remembered as a child. Something about this little adult scrambling up a sycamore tree to get a good look at Jesus gave me a picture of Jesus as a kind man with a sense of humor and easy disposition. The warmth and friendship Jesus shows Zacchaeus resonates in the opening words of 2 Thessalonians and urges me to think about the ways I experience generosity in my relationships.

At my best, I’m a self-assured, centered, and insightful person. At my worst, I become blustery, cynical, and even caustic. In these bad patches, it seems a miracle that my friends and family put up with me, but it’s also in these bad patches that I most often realize how deep and broad love is, how vital grace and generosity are. Without them, we cannot see how much of life is about conversion, which I think of as the birth, death, and resurrection cycle. Without them we cannot see how misleading it is to say, “It is better to give than receive,” because the truth is that, like Zacchaeus—who responds to Jesus by giving half of what he owns to the poor—we can only offer what we have to others if we’ve first received grace from God.

Celebrations that honor the dead help us remember and ritualize the traditions and insights we receive from our ancestors. These celebrations also call us to evaluate the way we live now. Yet memories and rituals can deceive us if we romanticize the past. In this way, right-remembering—being honest about both our nation’s past and present—is a way we can live with authenticity, courage, and faith. God’s purpose can be seen in our lives, just as Jesus could see Zacchaeus’ good heart, and we can pray for renewal and political change.

November 11

Death and Rebirth

Job 19:23-27; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

For people who know George Frideric Handel’s magnum opus, Messiah, Job’s affirmation of faith will be familiar: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand on the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” This text opens the third and final part of the oratorio that describes the Lamb’s triumph over death and creation’s miraculous rebirth when the last trumpet sounds. Indeed, in Luke, Jesus declares that God is a God of the living (Luke 20:38).

Jesus’ teaching in the gospel reading connects to 1 Corinthians 15:51, which Handel and King Jamesian English lyrically describe as a mystery: “We shall not all sleep; but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

“‘Death is swallowed up in victory,’” the soloist proclaims. Death is everywhere, every day making this promise of new life a beautiful thing. In the life of the early church, Christians were looking forward to the end of the world—what theologians refer to as the eschaton or apocalypse—that would lead to the age of resurrection when the dead would be raised.

Two thousand years later, we are not sure what to make of the Bible’s descriptions of what will happen at Christ’s second coming, nor do we know when the world as we know it will end. But in November, thanks to days such as the Feast of All Souls and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), we have the opportunity to acknowledge that the divisions are thin but full of profound mystery—life and death, material and spiritual, day and night, human and divine. In this day and age, how do we proclaim our knowledge that Christ is alive?

November 18

Choosing Life

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

This week’s lections are dense and apocalyptic. Each text has its own historical context that explains why the promise of new heavens and a new earth, accompanied by an end to suffering, was so important in each situation. For example, the first reading from Isaiah actually comes from Third Isaiah, at a time when life in Israel was full of economic hardship and the threat of war, and the community was in need of religious renewal. This helps us understand the prophet’s words in relation to other biblical themes such as promise and covenant, judgment, punishment and destruction, and redemption. But what do they mean for us?

From my perspective, we have a choice to make as we try to answer this question. Do we read the texts literally, find parallels in today’s world, and interpret things allegorically? Do we enter into dialogue with the texts and challenge literalist interpretations of passages such as Luke 21:9-10? Do we read the passages as examples of interesting but antiquated cosmology that we can just dismiss?

I want to go with the second option. We have all heard interpretations of biblical apocalypse that lead to the conclusion that Christians should step back from the world’s machinations and let the “heathens” self-destruct while the faithful wait for Christ’s return. Faced with this reading and with Jesus’ words, I confess I don’t know how to believe that I am called to sit on society’s sidelines and profess the necessity of large-scale destruction to bolster my faith. I want to remember all the dead, all the souls suffering because of oppression, and all the land that is barren because of warfare in these days. I must ask the text, “Is our hope really found in our neighbor’s destruction?”

November 25

Looking for the Light

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

With the dying of the daylight, we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ dying on the cross. Paul’s theological reflections for the Colossians give meaning to Jesus’ death in a way that has deep social implications. Through Jesus, he writes, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). This is the reason for his exultation and glory.

Reconciliation is God’s hope and intention for us. Justice, righteousness, and peace are the threads that form the fabric of Jesus’ glorious robe. The lamb becomes the shepherd, and in turn becomes our savior. This week’s readings are rich with metaphorical language and fuel our imaginations. But in practical terms, what does it mean to acknowledge the “reign of Christ” in our worship?

Liturgist Laurence Stookey explains that for folks living in democracies, calling God our sovereign is yet another metaphor that helps us judge human behavior. “Talk about the reign of God,” he adds, “makes apparent the deficiencies of human rulers and provides clues as to what might make human governance more just.”

As November enters its final week, Christmas Muzak is all around us, and elaborate configurations of Christmas lights fight against winter’s enveloping darkness. If we allow ourselves to slow down and move according to kairos’ clock and the earth’s rhythms, we might find that we have time to honor Christ’s glory as we prepare to behold the mystery of new life, as we open our eyes to the Christ-light that glows everywhere.

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