Whenever I visit a local shopping centre/mall at this time of year my mind goes back to the days when I was at high school and then university and worked part time in the food hall of David Jones in Bankstown Square. I remember the long days of holidays when we had more hours at work to cope with the Christmas rush. At lunchtime we had 30-40 minutes and having been on my feet all morning I usually found a seat in the middle of Bankstown Square and sat quietly eating lunch. It was somewhat fascinating and revealing to watch the people all around me. Most people rushed past with great intensity and many seemed quite stressed. As we got closer to Christmas they seemed more intense and rushed by even faster. I wondered what made them so anxious? I wondered what they were so focussed on and why there was no time to smile or seemingly enjoy the moment. Most looked like they needed my seat much more than I!
In the store, the food hall of David Jones, people would rush in late on Christmas Eve and ask what we had left. They had forgotten someone and needed a gift, any gift. By 5:00 on Christmas Eve, there was little of worth left – some dented tins of biscuits or other items that didn’t sell. They were annoyed that we didn’t have the right thing, the exact thing they needed and rushed out in a panic.
As I think back I feel a little sympathy for these people as they experienced a mini-catastrophe, a mini-crisis in the midst of the ensuing chaos of this confusing season. They rushed around in search of something elusive, something that seemed hidden – there but not there. Many were fulfilling expectations of a culture increasingly bent on material realities and the escalation of the commercial success of Christmas. I suspect that this is really the root of the crisis. People’s lives were, and are, escalating out of control. Expectations around material ambition and aspiration dominate our lives. We are pulled in a multitude of directions by forces that are uncontrollable, as much as they are unseen. We feel this crisis of meaning and expectation in our being and the forces to comply and fit in can be overwhelming. There are diverse stresses that pull us different directions and life can feel difficult, tiring and like being on a treadmill. This is a crisis and I think there were many crises rushing past me in the David Jones Food Hall those many years ago.
It is in the midst of ordinary life with all these things going on and the balancing of time with people, tasks to be done, the joyful, the necessary and the mundane moments of our lives that we experience a moment of wonder. Sometimes wondrous moments sneak up on us and break into our conscious world like the suddenness of a lightning strike or spontaneous action that takes us by surprise. Sometimes these moments grow into our awareness like the approaching storm with its build-up of grey/black clouds and eerie silence before the first rattle of thunder or drops of rain. These moments of wonder may take us by complete surprise and leave us confused and disoriented. It is the sudden awareness that there is more, much more to our existence than the forces and realities of this ordinary life with its more mundane moments. When we encounter a relationship of love or vulnerability where simple beauty fills us our senses and draws us out of the cycles of rush and expectation, our perspective changes.
Sometimes it isn’t a wondrous moment but a deeper crisis that confronts the mundanity of life, leaving us with a heightened sense of the world in a deeper, more painful or fearful way. The mini-crisis/catastrophe gives way to some deeper reality that life is really tough at its core. We suddenly open to the world that many know as a daily reality through the harshness of poverty or war, oppressive regimes or displacement from homes… How do we live in the midst of these in-breaking realities of the world? How do we understand them and engage with them? How do we live in the midst of crisis or catastrophe, whether mini or major, whether acute of chronic, whether personal, communal, national or cosmic? How do we live in the midst of this and where does faith or God fit into this picture?
Our reading for this first week of a new Church year, the first week of Advent (Matthew 24:36-44), applies this image of cosmic catastrophe and speaks in apocalyptic tones. For the community of Matthew in the late 1st century (around 80 AD), there was cosmic crisis in their world, having lived through the Roman-Jewish war a decade earlier that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The small community of Christians were excluded from the Jewish synagogues and experienced the general poverty of the people living under oppressive Roman rule. The Christians were struggling and life was very harsh – with more persecution to come. How should the followers of Jesus live in the midst of such crisis and chaos? How should they hope and what should they do?
Matthew provides his community and those of us who reads his words millennia later with the wisdom to watch for the in-breaking experiences of the ever-present God. He speaks about watching and waiting and his message is that the realities of ordinary life around us, mundane, exciting or harsh are not the full picture. We can engage in the life expected of us and fit in with everyone and everything around us but we may miss the in-breaking of wonder, grace and love that accompanies the presence of God coming into our lives in these sublime or lovely moments. If life is filled with distraction and fear, worry or anxiety and we allow ourselves to be drawn down into places dark and deep this becomes our life. The lens through which we see everything may be darkened by the struggle we feel or the depression that draws us down. This lens may be clouded by the messages, mixed and controlling of a world that seeks to define us and our existence. It may be that the experiences that overwhelm our being stops us short in the journey of living and stalls any movement forward, at least for a time. Matthew wants to say that these realities, harsh and difficult as they are will not be the final truth that defines us.
Matthew warns his readers that God is like a thief who breaks into human life and disrupts our order. Sometimes God is like a thunder storm in summer that is both beautiful and amazing but also scary in its uncontrolled power and awesome display of sound and light. Sometimes God is a gentle sunset of vibrant beauty that makes us stop and stare, smile and breathe more deeply – and become aware that there is more, much more to our lives. Matthew would have us understand that there is a God who holds all things in a web of grace and invites us to stop, breathe in the Spirit, look more deeply at life and embrace the wonder, promise and love of God who perpetually breaks into human life.