Time,Tradition and Eternity


A sermon preached on January 3, 2010 based upon Luke 2:41 – 52.

If I were to ask you, where you were, and what you were doing at a particular moment in time, say, this past December 12th at precisely 7:48 in the evening, chances are, off the top of your head at least, you wouldn’t have a clue. 

But if I were to ask the same of you regarding another moment:  12 midnight on December 31st (or January 1st) chances are good that you would remember both where you were, and what you were doing, and who you were with, and not only this past December 31st, but probably quite a few other December thirty firsts in your life as well.  

The reason for this is, of course that we make a tradition of marking the passing of a calendar year.  Though we vary to some degree what we do from year to year, some things stay the same:  the count down, for instance, watching the ball drop in Time Square, perhaps.   Maybe Dick Clark. 


We practice traditions in order to provide ourselves with some order and stability in the midst of the passage of time; to keep things familiar in the face of all the unsettling change and loss we endure.

We may make fun of the expression, “We always did it this way.”  But there is a reason for traditions and the business of always doing it, at least to some extent, the same each year, and that is that it helps us feel as though the past isn’t altogether lost – that there is something constant that endures though time marches on.

When we sing “Silent Night” every Christmas Eve by candlelight, we suddenly feel very close to all those past Christmas Eves when we did the very same thing.   The earth may have rotated a full orbit around the sun since the last time we did it, and we may have passed through four full seasons, but nonetheless, here we are, back where we started, and we find this reassuring. 

So traditions stand as a bulwark against simply drifting away in the vast ocean of time.  Here we are again.

Yet even as traditions provide some stability in the face of all that changes with time, at the same time, they call attention to what has changed.

Every year we watch the perpetually young Dick Clark counting down the seconds in Time Square, and then last year he was gone, brought low by a stroke, disrupting the tradition.    And then last week, for the sake of tradition, he was back, doing it yet again, reassuring us somehow, except now there is no mistaking Dick Clark for a young man – the stroke he endured marks him clearly as elderly.  Even Dick Clark will one day die.

And once more we stand there holding our candle singing “Silent Night,” just like before, and yet as we sing, perhaps we experience the absence of a loved one all the more intensely. 

Our Gospel reading tells the story of an annual tradition:  “Every year (Jesus’) parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover.  When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.”

Probably Jesus’ grandparents had done the same, and the great grandparents before that. And now each of the twelve years of Jesus’ young life, the family has done the same.  It has become so familiar that they don’t have to think about it much; everybody knows the routine, the family travels together with all the relatives and neighbors from Nazareth. 

But this year the tradition is disrupted; this year something happens that causes fear and anxiety, calling attention to the fact that things are indeed changing as time passes on. 

The twelve-year-old Jesus, claiming perhaps his identity as a man, acts independently in a way that the eleven-year-old Jesus would never have dared to act.  He stays behind in Jerusalem on his own to ponder the deep mysteries of God with the elders in the Temple.  The obedient child transitions into the young man who chooses his own way.  The little boy is gone, and how very distressing this must have been on some level to his mother and father. 

That great old hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” has this rather harsh verse:

  “Time like an ever rolling stream    bears all who breath away;
   they fly forgotten, as a dream   dies at the opening day.” 

 But even as a part of us wants to do all we can to slow down the ever flowing stream, at the same time, another part of us knows that time must pass — that change is necessary — because we are on a journey — we are heading somewhere — not so much in time and space as in the soul realm of eternity. 

 We are called to transforming – to growing up – in the truest sense of the word, as the child Jesus had to grow up.  And even as the parents can’t be certain that their boy isn’t headed off on a misguided path, they also know that he will never find his path if he doesn’t set off on his own, and so reluctantly, they let him go.

Deep inside, we sense that there is this realm of eternity, and we practice our traditions in part as an echo to this truth; that all is not lost, that love never ends.

One of my favorite Christian writers is Frederick Buechner.  He describes in his memoir a conversation he had with his elderly mother, a woman of striking physical appearance and composure who had steadfastly avoided throughout her life discussing spiritual matters or anything, for that matter that was charged with emotion, particularly the subject of death.     

“But there was one day, I remember, when in the midst of some conversation we were having about nothing in particular she suddenly turned to me and said out of the blue, “Do you really believe anything happens after you die?” and all at once she was present to me in a way she rarely was.  She was no longer onstage.  She was no longer in character.  She had stepped off into the wings for a moment, and the words she had spoken were not in the script.  Her face was for the moment not the one she had skillfully assembled in front of the dressing-table mirror that morning with lipstick, powder, and eyebrow pencil, but her own true face.  She had come a long way from the little girl in frilly white with the upside-down flowers in her lap.  She was in her eighties with bad arthritis in her knees and was wearing whichever one of her many hearing aids she happened to have chosen that day, although none of them ever seemed to do her much good.   I always suspected that it was not so much because she was deaf that she couldn’t hear; but because there was so much she didn’t want to hear that she chose to be deaf.  To get anything through to her you had to say it at the top of your lungs, so in answer to her question, I said YES.  I said I believed SOMETHING HAPPENS.  But there are things that cannot be shouted, and as soon as I tried in my more or less normal voice to tell her a little more about what I believed and why I believed it, I could see that she was not only not hearing, but also not listening.  Just to have asked the question seemed for the time being to be as much as he could handle. 

So later, when I got home, I tried to answer the question in a letter.  I wrote her I believe that what happens when you die is that, in ways I knew no more about that she did, you are given back your life again, and I said there were three reasons why I believed it.  First, I wrote her, I believed it because, if I were God and loved the people I created and wanted them to become at last the best they had it in them to be, I couldn’t imagine consigning them to oblivion when their time came with the job under the best of circumstances only a fraction done.  Second, I said, I believed it, apart from any religious considerations, because I had a hunch it was true.  I intuited it.  I said that if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy.  It feels like a mystery.  It feels as though, at the innermost heart of it, there is Holiness, and that we experience all the horrors that go on both around us and within us as horrors rather than as just the way the cookie crumbles because, in our own innermost hearts, we belong to Holiness, which they are a tragic departure from.  And lastly, I wrote her, I believe that what happens to us after we die is that we aren’t dead forever because Jesus said so.  Jesus was another of the dead people I knew my mother wouldn’t want to talk about, and I had no idea how she would react to my involving his authority.  I said that, because in one way Jesus was a human being like the rest of us, I imagined he could be wrong about lots of things like the rest of us too and probably believed the world was flat just the way everybody else did in his day.  But when he said to the Good Thief on the cross next to his, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,” I wrote here, I would bet my bottom dollar that he of all people knew what he was talking bout, because if in one way he was a human being, in another way he was immeasurably more.  

I could hardly conceive of a more unlikely person that my mother to have written such a letter to, but since trying to shout it all to her instead was unthinkable, I mailed it anyway, and when I asked about it some weeks later, her only answer was to say that it had made her cry.  I don’t think that it was anything I said that made her cry; in fact I doubt if she even read my letter all the way through.  I think that it was being reminded by the letter of her original question about death.  I think her tears had to do with what she saw as the pathos of simply having asked it when she knew without even talking about it that her own death couldn’t be all that far away.” 

(From “The Eyes of the Heart: a memoir of the lost and found”  by Frederick Buechner, pp.14 – 17)

Coming to church every Sunday is another tradition by which we hold onto our roots in the midst of so much change.   In a few minutes we will once more celebrate the Lord’s Supper, a tradition that enables us to hopscotch through the years and even centuries past, to every other moment of sharing the bread and the wine, to that original moment when Jesus himself sat around a table with his disciples the night before he died.   Eternity is touched in this ritual. 

Sally Fields won an Oscar for her performance thirty years ago in a movie called “Places in the Heart”, in which she portrayed a mother of two small children struggling to keep her farm out of foreclosure during the Great Depression.  In the opening scene of the movie, her husband is accidently killed by a drunken young black man.  In the second scene an angry mob of white men lynch the young black man.   The heart of the movie describes the struggle of the widow to survive working with an odd assortment of local outcastes.  In the final scene the woman is sitting in church with her children on Sunday morning as Holy Communion is served.  The camera pans down the aisle, and beside her we see her husband, likewise partaking.  It pans further, and we see sitting next to him the young man who accidently caused his death.   

In the midst of this ancient ritual which was instituted by Jesus himself, the underlying holiness at the heart of life is experienced, and for a moment the sinner/saints of earth and heaven are together as one in the Kingdom of God.


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