I do not remember much about my middle school years. They are a blur. There was so much change, so many conflicting feelings about oneself and the world – a kind of constant tension. I do remember that I had a crush on Barbara Gillis but was too afraid to ask her to dance at the Christmas social event.
However, I do remember being in a 9th grade psychology class. I remember the teacher trying to explain the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is that uncomfortable feeling that you have when you hold conflicting ideas simultaneously. It creates tension. You want something but can’t quite get it. You believe something but the evidence shows something different. Your parents have always told you that you should do this and not do that – now you are at college and your parents are not present – you experience cognitive dissonance about a lot of things! The “that’s” and the “this’s” get all confused.
Scientists believe that you and I are driven to reduce this dissonance, to lessen the tension. That makes sense. So, we either change behaviors, beliefs or actions OR sometimes we just justify, blame and deny.
My younger brother Andrew is not here to defend himself – but when he was little – in pre-school a picture was taken of him putting a piece of tape in a little girl’s hair. It was a cute picture, nobody got hurt – it was fine. But at some level in a 4 year old’s brain – that picture made him feel embarrassed. So he denied he ever did it – even when the evidence was right there before him. He still denies it!
Leon Festinger wrote a book entitled When Prophecy Fails. Festinger infiltrated a Christian group that was expecting the imminent end of the world. The prediction failed, of course, but the group didn’t break up, it actually grew larger for a time. In response to the “cognitive dissonance” the group had to readjust and reinterpret the data and come up with a new scenario.
Advent is a weird season of cognitive dissonance. We move from the feasting of Thanksgiving to the fasting of Advent. And today’s scripture lesson alone is enough reason to pause and feel the tension.
We are expecting the birth of Jesus and we get a lesson telling us to expect the end of the world. The passage from Matthew’s gospel is not from chapter 1, but chapter 24. These are the words of the adult Jesus, the about-to-be-killed Jesus, whose walking through his passion week of tension wondering what’s going to happen. And like the group that Leon Festinger studied – you and I are left to interpret and re-interpret.
And it may be that verse 36 points to the first act of re-interpreting… “But about the day and the hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father….. Keep awake therefore for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
It seems as if the first generation of Christians expected that Jesus would return very soon, but it didn’t happening. The Roman destruction of Jerusalem was seen as the moment when history would end – but time just kept rolling along. Jews were not converting, Greeks were. In the topsy-turvy world of reality, things had to be re-adjusted. This cognitive dissonance caused the early Christians to write the gospels – since the world wasn’t coming to an end right away – it was important to write down and pass on the words of Jesus.
In church and culture we want to rush ahead and celebrate Christmas – but Advent slows us down and makes us wait. We don’t get to sing “Angels we have heard on High” or “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World.” We pick from well-loved hymns like: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry,” or my personal favorite: “Sleepers, Wake! A Voice Astounds Us.” It’s just weird!
Today we celebrate the Lord’s LAST SUPPER – shouldn’t we be throwing Mary a baby shower? It would be more appropriate.
For many of us the cognitive dissonance of the season is brutal. Everyone seems cheery, putting on that holiday face. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE this season – but for many it is too hard to take. Suicides go up during this happy time. The author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, once wrote: “God gave us memories so we could have roses in December.” That is lovely and for some it is true…but when December comes and your mother with memory loss doesn’t know who you are and you can’t spend the time with her because your husband and children depend on you to be the one who gets everything ready for the celebration of the season, it’s not easy. Or the memories of December make the absence of the one you love more present than anything presently around you – and the memories of past happiness in the face of present loneliness – well, you get what I am getting at – this cognitive dissonance makes you vulnerable.
There is the great anticipation of shopping and the great reality of having little money to shop with. There is an abundance of things to buy and almost everything is too expensive – but many of us buy anyway – and then we face the tension of the Visa bill in January.
I know this sermon is getting to be a bit of a bummer – but Advent throws us off. I hate to do it. But I don’t even understand the passage – particularly the part about the two in the field and the two women grinding, about one being “taken” and one being left behind. Some Christians believe this is a description of the “rapture” when the believer will be taken in to heaven to be with the Lord, while the unbeliever will be left to survive the best he or she can. But there is nothing in this text that says that the one who is taken is at an advantage – maybe you want to be left behind. It’s just a weird passage – for a weird day – and I’m in a weird mood!
But there is something about the cognitive dissonance, the weirdness of Advent, the very tension of this season that makes us get real, doesn’t it. We can’t hide behind the glitter, we can’t totally lose ourselves in the tinsel.
Advent, I think, even more than Lent, forces us into the “thin space” as the Celtic Christian called it. The “Thin Spaces” where the dissonance meets, where the tension touches, where gladness and sadness greet, and God and human reach out towards each other and finger tips tap as portrayed in the glorious mural of Michelangelo painted in the Sistine chapel.
Advent is a call to introspection in a time of extrovertive excess. Advent’s cognitive dissonance, its seasonal weirdness – even the weather can’t even make up its mind – all of this forces us into the vulnerable places where we do not usually want to go. And even though I shouldn’t be even mentioning a Christmas carol hymn, I return to the lovely arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams of Phillips Brooks’ “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above the deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet, in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in Thee tonight.
Into the darkness, into your darkness, or into your light, or perhaps into the nether world of your actual existence – something may be stirring – the very tension of the season calls to us to look and pay attention and to wait. And we don’t like to wait! It may look like nothing is happening, the silent stars just go by – but we hope, and reach out and we do not despair – for something more – the tension cannot be diminished by denial.
Advent is a call to look at your hopes and your fears and not to give too much power to your doubts or to your certainties – to dwell in the dissonance and not seek to diminish it too quickly.
It might have been Thomas Merton who said: “The longer you can stay in the tension, the better!”
The longer you can stay in the tension, the better.
I don’t like tension and yet, and yet – to go down into it, to look at the tension from all angles, to distance yourself from the tension just a bit by detaching yourself from it and looking at what is eating you objectively – now we have some hope, some possibility of movement – perhaps some awareness.
This morning we are called to the table – the place where the divine co-mingles with us. Where death becomes life and a cube and a shot glass become a feast and our little space is transformed into a Kingdom banquet hall – and nothing really makes any sense and yet it is the only reality.
We find ourselves by losing ourselves. We wait for the Jesus knowing that he is already here. The baby has been crucified and raised, the manger becomes the tomb – birth and death become one.
Darn, it’s weird!
Advent weirdness. Cognitive dissonance. (And I still don’t think I have the courage to ask Barbara Gillis to dance.)
Indeed, it is the end of the world as we know it… and frankly, I feel fine being left behind with you – so that in community we can await the coming of Jesus.