Recently I was able to hear a presentation by Dr. Cameron Mackenzie, a scholar and professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. He made the point that the way that we think about history is very different from the way that Martin Luther did so. When we study the past, we are looking for patterns of natural causes and effects. When Luther looked at history, he spoke frequently of the direct action of both God and Satan.
Insulated by years of scientific advances, we tend to think of life as primarily something that we can improve and control. For instance, we expect as a matter of course to be able to find cures for illnesses and to eradicate diseases. In contrast, Luther and his contemporaries did not see the world as under the control of humanity. Life was something that happened to one, and disease and death was something that could come at any time (as could a miraculous deliverance from death).
I wonder if we are not in danger of losing sight of a reality that Luther knew very well. It can be too easy for us to feel that we are in control of our lives. With the adjustment of a thermostat and the willingness to pay a utility bill, we can summon cold in summer and heat in winter. With a bit of voice activated android technology, we can chat with people who would otherwise be unreachable. We are even encouraged by our culture to pursue our personal happiness at any cost, and told that we can achieve any dream if we will only believe in ourselves. It is tempting to utter the idolatrous words of Henley’s poem “Invictus” and to say, “I am the master of my fate.”
And yet, we are not. No matter how many Paleo steaks and organic vegetables we eat, we cannot stop ourselves from dying, perhaps today or perhaps in thirty years. No matter how many self-actualization classes we take, we cannot make our significant other love us (or even stick with us) in the way that we want. No matter how resolutely we try, we cannot even prevent ourselves from the very sins that hurt ourselves and those we most love. That is why we need Advent.
To submit to the rhythms of a church calendar helps us to remember that, just as we cannot make today Christmas (no matter how many Bing Crosby tunes we play), we cannot rule our own fate. To live according to an external order is to be free of the terrifying, lonely, ultimately empty illusion that the world belongs to us.
Joining Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife for an Advent Link-Up Party!