Thursday, November 22, 2007

Preparing for Advent

Before entering parish ministry all of my professional life was spent in the retail sector. From the time that I was sixteen I worked in a store. One thing was always consistent in the retail world: The Christmas season began November 1st. In those early days of November, we pulled out our Christmas decorations, began to display Christmas merchandise, and on went the Christmas Carols and music. Even as retailer in the ecclesiastical market – I was retail sales manager of Toronto’s Anglican Book Centre for ten years – this was the case. From time-to-time, we tried to push things a little later into eleventh month, but the reality of retail is simply that a retailer needs to get a good start on the season if the books are going to turn from red to black in that last quarter of the year. As a retail manager, I found Christmas came even earlier. In the month of May, I would receive a sales visit from one of my favourite sales reps, a gentleman named Stephen Wright, who would lay out stack after stack of Christmas card samples. They were of all sorts and varieties, and I would go through each card quickly, but carefully, looking for those with a religious theme. This would generally take an entire morning – usually, a lovely May morning when the natural world was coming to life once again, and summer hinted gently from around the corner. And there I was choosing Christmas Cards.

I never seemed to mind this annual May ritual, nor did I mind the ritual of beginning the Christmas sales season in early November. You see, I have always loved planning for Christmas. It wasn’t just the Eaton’s Christmas “wish book” arriving each Fall (which my brother and I would scour for hours, deciding which action figures we wanted), nor was it the early longing for that two-week holiday. The home in which I grew up was not a particularly religious one. Yet, as the days of November crept ever closer, as a child I would eye up the Perry Como Christmas album and in due course, place the vinyl record on the player and hear about the “tidings of comfort and joy.” I was unaware of anything called “Advent”, and yet I think this childhood ritual was, in a way, an observance of an advent-time.

And so, as an adult, a retailer, a bookseller, the early onset of Christmas never bothered me, much to the chagrin of the ecclesiastics around me. Nor does it today, even as a cleric. This morning, amidst the first fall of snow, I heard the first Christmas advertisement on the radio – a pitch for a Christmas album by a noted boys’ choir. My heart lifted to the strains of “Once in Royal David’s City,” and within me I felt the age-old prayer begin to swell, “Come Lord, Jesus, Come.”

Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part without the express written consent of the author.

Friday, November 2, 2007

On Remembrance

Athena and I were talking recently about how “The War” informed life for our generation. While it is true that we were both born a good twenty-five years after the end of World War II, it formed a strong part of our shared cultural narrative as Gen-Xers. The war was ever-present in the conversations of our elders – in their storytelling, in their hopes and fears, and in their response to challenges of the day. On the one hand, it seemed to us that it had just happened and that we had missed it, and on the other that it was already an event of mythic proportions.

My maternal grandfather, Frank Rason, was member of the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.C.E.M.E.) and served in England, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In England he met my grandmother, Joan Edwards, and married her before the war was over, sending her home to become one of the many war brides who, barely adults, left all they had to begin a new life in a new land. Thus, our family came into being because of the war. We knew the stories of my grandparents’ courtship and we knew that it was the war that brought them together. They were, however, reticent to talk of the war. They were times best left forgotten. Typically, I recall my grandfather telling funny stories about some of his compatriots and the antics in which they engaged. I recall one Christmas dinner, though, when in the midst of relating one of these tales, he stopped, looked around at each of us, and misty-eyed began, “I want each of you to know how lucky I am. So many boys never came home. I saw terrible things. When we landed in Belgium I remember seeing a field where a battle had just been fought, and I will always remember the image of a pair of boots with legs, but no body. So many never came back. I’m so lucky.”

That was the only time I ever remember him talking about the brutal reality of the war. I never heard him speak of it again. I do remember him falling asleep in his chair at nights and sometimes shouting. I do know of the deep psychological scars the war made on him, and on so many others. I am deeply aware that many men found solace in the self-medicating ritual of alcoholism. I am deeply aware that so many found gentle parenting and healthy domesticity difficult after being trained to kill. I am deeply aware that even those who did not sacrifice their lives gave so much, including their youth. Many, like my grandfather, lied about their age to get into the service.

In the fifteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The men of that generation gave up their lives – some in the ultimate sacrifice, others in offering up their youth, their hopes and dreams, their possibilities of a life untouched by mental illness, alcoholism, or peace of mind. War devastates, and I believe that as Christians we are called to walk the way of peace. I am also aware that I make this claim from the vantage point of someone who lives a life of freedom because of the sacrifice of others. I am aware that my grandfather bore much pain so that I would not have to. I am deeply aware as a Christian that our freedom is born through the violence of the crucifixion. The Eucharist, itself, is an act of remembrance of that act of violence that freed us from bondage. But in remembering, recalling that act, we recognize this, that it is not the act of violence, itself, that frees. Rather, it is the love that is offered in the sacrifice of the one who willingly lays down his life. Jesus did just this. And even those who lived to come home from the war, did just that – they laid down their lives in so many ways. The war that made up my narrative thought world no longer has the force it once did. My grandparents and so many others are gone. World War II has not the narrative power to our children as it had for us. But ultimately, I wonder, does it really matter? The self-giving sacrifice of love has power for all generations, and week-by-week as we receive the Eucharist, we meet that offering of love. As children of any generation, it is our call to walk the way of peace, to live into the freedom of that peace, offered to us in Christ Jesus.

Let us then remember those who offered themselves in love. As we remember those fallen as well as those who came home with so many deep physical, mental, and emotional scars, let us remember the love for which they bore their pain and their dream that none other should ever endure it. We shall remember them, lest we forget.

Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part without the express written consent of the author.