advent, desire, letters, love, Maryville College, preaching, sermon, White Pine, WWII
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my family gathered at a sibling’s home in Kentucky. We used to gather at my parents’ home in Alabama, but both of my parents have been dead for more than a decade now. This year, my older sister brought two larger binders filled with letters that my parents had written to one another during World War II. She had discovered them in an old box taken from their attic, and had arranged them in chronological order. The letters we read were all written during August and September, 1944. At the time they were written, both of my parents were barely twenty years old. He was in boot camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was at home from Maryville College for the summer. They had met at Maryville, and were secretly engaged. But they were now separated, and, without knowing it at the time, he would be sent into battle in just three months as a medic in Patton’s 3rd Army, 365th medical battalion.
On Friday after Thanksgiving, four of the five siblings, along with my daughter, son, and spouses sat and read aloud to each other these letters we had never before read. The more we read, the more deeply engrossed we became, hardly noticing the passing of time and the setting of the sun. We were caught up in the world of two young people, deeply in love, torn apart by war, struggling with decisions about vocation, marriage, family, health (my mother had a heart murmur), all of which was clouded over by war, the loss of friends in battle, and the complete uncertainty of the future.
The next day, with Thanksgiving over and the season of Advent approaching, it occurred to me that all of the feelings and hopes expressed in those letters are at the heart of the meaning of Advent. The letters were literally dripping with eros (love), by which I mean the deepest kind of desire that can be humanly experienced: desire for intimacy, desire for health, desire for peace, desire for family, desire for friendship, desire for life, desire for a work, desire for fulfillment, desire for a joy-filled future, and the deep desire to know and to be known by God. In many ways, Advent is the season of desire for Christians. Messianism is, at its core, an experience of profoundest eros – the desire for Emmanuel, God with us.
During Advent, preachers could do no better than to write love letters to their congregations similar to the ones my parents wrote to one another in 1944. In these homiletical letters, we might speak to our congregations as partners on a great journey. On this journey, there is often distance between and among us – but we will create ways to unite. There is violence, warfare, injustice, and poverty, and misery all around – but we will not let these harsh realities separate us from our hope for peace. As we travel, our bodies will sometimes fail us, hearts will murmur, joints will wear out, mental faculties will bend or even break – but we will find other ways to keep moving forward despite these difficulties. Our churches and religious institutions will change and sometimes fail us – but we know that the Word we follow does not let us down. Our families and friends will change and sometimes abandon us or die – but we will seize a few memories to live on, and if we can’t remember them, we will create new memories that will sustain us. But most of all, we will never stop feeling the eros within us. We will not run from this desire, but will instead live into it with all our might, finding in that desire the way toward a new future, the one that God is preparing for us. We don’t know what it is, but we desire it more than anything else in the world, like my parents did – she sitting on her bed in her room that summer in White Pine, Tennessee, writing beautiful hand-written letters to my father; and he, sitting in a silent corner of the mess hall, writing her back, as the world fell apart all around them.
This, at least in part, is what it means to preach during Advent. We preach as if our lives depended upon it, knowing that in spite of everything to the contrary, nothing can stop our desire for each other’s happiness, our desire for God, and our desire for God’s future. This desire is utterly irrepressible in all of us as Christians.
As preachers, we could do no better than to send love letters like this during the season of Advent.