The sermon went off this morning, with a generously positive reception. I have a fair number of reservations about the way I finally realized the composition; another day of gestation might have served the sermon well — but I did meet the challenge of (a) incorporating the metaphors from the “O Antiphons” in to the sermon, (b) accommodating my inuitive assoication of the present moment with Candide, and (c) infiltrating an online gaming phrase that my buddies demanded to hear/see in the online text. I did not mention Micah, Kaethe, and Pippa by name, as Micah had suggested, but Pippa and the Wright Kaufmann young’uns appear as a non-specific next generation, which they would probably be more comfortable with.
I will note that I had assumed (without checking, shame on me) that we would be singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on this Third Sunday of Advent. I shoulda checked, but the week was pretty stressful, and I put it off.
Zeph 3:14-20/Is 12:2-6/Phil 4:4-7/ Luke 3:7-18
3 Advent C, December 17, 2006
With many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.
In the name of God Almighty, the Holy Trinity on high — Amen.
I can’t name the precise moment when the backdrops shifted, when the costumes changed; I don’t know the exact incident that triggered the thought, but sometime in the past week I was overtaken by the powerful sense that the world around us had shuddered and quivered and turned a corner, so that we found ourselves living as by-standers, as theatrical extras, crowd scenes in a real-life version of Voltaire’s Candide, in which Candide and his beloved Cunegonde, Dr. Pangloss and a retinue of long-suffering characters witness — and participate in — murder, massacre, rape, mutilation, theft, disease, and various other afflictions, which experiences convince them to abandon Dr. Pangloss’ belief that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Instead, Candide decides, we should just stay home and tend our own gardens.
My vision that real life had been transformed into Voltairean satire may have come after hearing about one of the convulsive charades that characterize modern politics, or the harrowing spiral of destruction in the Mid-East. Under the influence of some bleak news of torture or plague, of starvation or terrorism, of deaths closer to home, or religious oppression, or all of these, I flashed back to the years long ago when I first read Candide’s Epicurean ideal of insular happiness in a well-groomed garden. Back then in the tumultuous 1960s, Candide’s perspective seemed self-evidently true to me. In what sense can you call a world “good” when so much suffering and horror, so much cruelty, greed, and venality jostle for our attention day after day?
Candide’s reasoning bespeaks an honest worldly wisdom; it acknowledges no lord but nature, the annual sprouting-forth of a green world, the key to life determined by not asking for unrealistic goals. From the rising of the sun to its setting, women labor, men toil, children hunger, all things prosper, wither and die. The kings of the nations make war, and the promise of Emmanuel strikes jaded ears as callow optimism. Candide spurns hopeful hearts with the plain premise that with hard work, and diminished expectations, we can carve out for ourselves modest pockets of comfort and beauty if we tend to our own gardens.
It’s simple, and sensible, and it would clarify so much for us, except that Candide misses, indeed conceals the vital meaning of our lives and efforts, of our joys and our hopes. Candide buys plausibility by accepting the terms that plain common sense offers us. Misery, greed, hatred, disease, and death won’t go away, Candide supposes, but he and his friends can make a congenial enclave where their companionship and hard work make bearable the stresses of a wearisome world, a world that falsifies the grandeur that their imagination stirs up in them.
Then onto the stage of our real-life satiric drama — well, not onto the stage, since I’ve already stipulated that this morning’s programming takes place in the actual world we inhabit — down by the Potomac, or the Chicago River, onto the scene of escalating war, religious intolerance, and public corruption strides a hairy prophet, a stern moralist who preaches to everyone who’ll listen to him. John fits right into Candide’s world, from his outlandish diet to his furious social criticism. John steps into Candide’s world and denounces the powers that cause such devastating havoc: “You snakes! Thieves, and exortionists! This is the beginning of the end!” And where John preaches, where John offers the world a clean start in the name of the God of life, there the pragmatic obviousness of worldly enlightenment itself pales and falters. Candide’s sensible garden fades to a sepia-toned unreality and a stronger, deeper, more ancient Garden blossoms into view.
The deep saturated hues of that ancient garden tell the truth about God’s wisdom that Voltaire’s version of the garden misses. Where Candide urges us to content ourselves with shades of gray, that true Garden splashes vivid crimson, purple, lime green, gold, across leaf and lawn. That ancient Wisdom unfolds with intensity in startling saturation, entering even into the most grievous suffering so that no plague, no cruelty can escape the presence of God’s grace; Wisdom comes into the world Wisdom wrought, and it endures our spoliation of beauty, our denial of redemptive hope. Wisdom accompanies us as we err in our own headstrong destructiveness, ever offering us the hope of wisdom greater than our own, a Garden more fruitful that that which we cultivate.
John’s Garden points us beyond Nature’s endless cycles of death and birth, of big bang and heat death, of heartless necessity. Where Nature impartially presides over a succession of temporary beauties that fade, blur, decay in the futility of mortal strife, John’s Garden praises a Lord in whose sight no loveliness perishes, no generosity exhausts, no corrosion afflicts. We perceive John’s garden in our confession that death does not speak the final word, that God has raised up Jesus Christ — and us, as members of Christ’s Body — in a victory over merely natural forces of pain, desire, decay. The laws by which John’s Garden thrives are the manifold blessings of the One Lord: trusting, and loving, and hoping.
The Root of that Garden reaches deeper than potting soil, deeper than rich loamy topsoil, deeper than any earth itself, into the stuff of being’s origins. Truth’s roots reach back through generations of saints and prophets, of sisters and brothers who will not let go of their forebears nor abandon their children. Our Root extends across ages and binds us together despite our wishes, holding us in a single net with hypocrites and haters, holy women and helpful men, reaching further and holding more securely than our garden fences, stakes, arbors, ties and trellises. The Root of the Garden reaches beyond time, and in it our hopes will blossom.
All these signs of the Garden gesture for our attention from behind the plainness by which common sense tries to lock out disappointment, grief, sorrow, weariness. Candide’s garden closes its door on the greater world, and hides the Key. Perhaps if we can’t smell the pungent blooms of John’s Garden, we might be content in Candide’s; perhaps if we never see the intense hues of the true Garden, we won’t notice how domestication has muted the tones of the world. Candide offers us bland security to protect us from sorrow, but John points to the Key by which we may free ourselves from gloomy fear and death. The Key of the Garden releases us from the defensive walls that enclose our aspirations, and sends us out into a limitless glory wherein we will suffer loss, we will know disappointment, but we will always freely partake of the truth that no pain, no loss can lock down.
Even now, that truth dawns among us. We hear it in the resonance of harmonious choirs, summoning us into the courts of angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven. We see the Dawn radiant in our children’s openhearted, loving beauty. We smell the dawn in the scent of home cooking, of our loved one’s hair, of great books and gorgeous bowers, we recognize the Dawn with every sense and indeed with faculties yet unnamed, for that Dawn rises in our hearts and understanding and in our outstretched hands, with joy in building, touching, healing in God’s name.
Dawn comes to the Garden brilliant in amazing grace, and draws all open hearts to its light, illumining the basest and the best, inviting the brokers of temporal power to lay aside their crowns and scepters. Those insignias of coercion exhaust their charity, trammel their liberty, weigh down their brows with cares that obscure the open majesty of the Garden and its gentle King. In the Garden to which John points us, no will can coerce, no violence compel, for love’s perfect liberty alone rules here; in this Garden, the King sets us free to rejoice.
To rejoice — or, if you prefer, maybe not so much. A smaller garden, with smaller expectations, would (after all) be more realistic, and safer. We could control for most variables, weed out most tares, spray the bugs, write off the losses, and come out with a modest profit. Prepare for the inevitable, and wait for the projected outcomes of your best practices. Candide’s garden offers a reasonable expectation of netting a reasonable yield of happiness. Live, make the best of things, and die. Join Candide and his friends, get a gig on a reality TV show, sound off about economic policy, cultivate your own turf. The grass withers, the flower fades and your fate shall be the same.
Beyond the borders of Candide’s garden, though, the vibrant sound of loud, festival singing shimmers in the morning sun. We know about death here, we’ve seen the devastation that evil and wickedness can inflict — we know them, but more truly and more finally we know their limits, and in the Garden beyond the limits of want and death we draw water from the springs of salvation and say, no, we sing the praises of the Lord who has done great things, we ring out our joy. Our King is in our very midst, the Dawn shines, the Key turns, the Root blossoms, the Lord reigns, and Wisdom gathers her children from among all the peoples of the earth to sing together, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus; Come, O come Emmanuel!”