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December 31, 2013

Marilyn McEntyre

  The first Sunday of Advent begins the liturgical year in many churches, marked by candles and colors and songs and Isaiah’s promise of “a new thing.”  A few weeks later the new calendar year begins amid general hoopla and football and lip service to renewed “resolutions.”   In both sacred and secular dimensions of our lives the theme of new beginnings nudges us toward reflection, reframing, perhaps repentance and renewal.  

 But all our beginnings happen in the midst of things. Aristotle reminds us that stories start “in medias res”:  as journeys begin, groundwork has already been laid, conflicts have already begun to brew, characters have a backstory, and something is afoot. Zelda Fitzgerald echoes that insight in the fiction that helped her come to terms with the wild momentum of a colorful and tragic life: “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.”  

  Most of us will recognize in Zelda’s observation the experience of realizing that we’ve already made a choice, or it has been made in us, by the time the choice becomes a conscious decision.  Things germinate underground. New beginnings happen in the darkness of the soil and the secret places of the heart.

  “And so we begin,” one story ends.  The opening of Finnegan’s Wake is a word that completes the final, unfinished sentence that ends the book—one writer’s way of challenging our too-linear, oversimplified notions of time.  

 People of faith know that time is a mystery.  Things happen “in the fullness of time”—an image of time as a cresting wave rather than a steady line.  Something “gathers to a greatness,” as Hopkins put it, and breaks forth as a thousand subtle forces converge.  Things come to pass “in due time,” “in God’s time,” in the “time between the times.” The eschatology that offers us ways of thinking about the “end times” is wrapped in apocalyptic language that resists simplistic ideas about beginnings, middles, and ends.  The Kingdom of Heaven is already among us, and is to come.

  As we hang a new calendar on the wall a sense of beginning can lift our hearts into a moment of renewed hope—a sense that there is permission and possibility: we turn to a new page, start a new chapter and unchain ourselves from a cluttered and burdensome past.  These moments can be little reminders of the hope we are called to, a theological virtue that surpasses optimism, its two-dimensional facsimile.  

  The cluttered and burdensome past we lay down before the One who “remembers our sins no more” remains with us as the material of which our very human stories are made, where the magnitude of mercy is made visible.  “The past is never dead,” Faulkner writes.  “It’s not even past.”  But his contemporary, T.S. Eliot insists, I think rightly, that though “time past is time present,” the present changes the past.  Every turning toward the light sends life and growth to our deepest roots.  Every turning toward Christ redeems the lives we live in the messy midst of things and turns them into stories about grace.  

  “Write a short story of your life as a story about loss,” I suggest in courses on memoir and autobiography.  “Then write it as a story about discovery.  Then write it as a story about grace.”  Each reiteration is a new beginning, as is every prayer we utter, because prayer itself comes from what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”—a stance and situation of naked, open readiness to inhabit the Now where alpha and omega meet, without beginning or end, where all things are made new.

Marilyn McEntyre (Ph.D.) has taught courses integrating literature and spirituality at WestmontCollege, Princeton Seminary, Fuller Seminary, and RegentCollege. She is author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. (January 2014)

Posted on December 31, 2013 at 10:32 PM
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