In Madeleine L’Engle’s great novel A Wrinkle in Time, Meg an ordinary daughter of two scientists, is propelled on a hero’s journey. Meg’s father, who has discovered a form of travel through space and time known as a tesseract, has become imprisoned on another planet.
Meg meets a mysterious woman, Mrs. Whatsit, who, with her friends Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, leads her through space and time to various planets before they begin the hard work of rescuing her father. Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace and a friend, Calvin go along for the ride.
In the fourth chapter of the book they glimpse a shadow covering the planet on which her father is trapped. L’Engle writes
It was a shadow, nothing but a shadow. It was not even as tangible as a cloud. Was it cast by something? Or was it a Thing in itself?…What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort?
This terrifying image has stayed with me the last few weeks, as I worry about the violence that has overshadowed our country and the world the last few weeks. But this image also is evoked by the apocalyptic images of Advent found in the Gospels.
The Gospel writer Mark was convinced that the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was an apocalyptic sign—a revelation that Jesus’ return was imminent. But years have passed and Jesus hasn’t returned, so Luke is recasting the expectation for first-Generation Christians. Yes, Jesus will come back, and there will be signs leading up to his return, but we cannot know when that will be.
We are in the middle of the story, and we don’t know when it will end.
Jesus has died and been resurrected. As the biblical scholar David Lose puts it, “We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death . . . and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven.”
Being in the middle of the story means we still have to face dark clouds. We still have to wait for a time when there will no longer be violence, no longer be suffering, no longer be tears.
So, how should we wait? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers,
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
We are to stay alert, but not panic.
That is not so easy, is it?
Over and over again, when Angels bring the good news of Jesus’ birth to human beings they introduce themselves by saying, “Fear not!” We are fearful people. We fear violence. We fear change. We fear the other. We fear not having enough. We fear not being in power. When we are afraid we can lash out, overreact, panic.
The other extreme is to bury our head in the sand. If we just detach from whatever is troubling us, then we can avoid the fear. We play make-believe and only engage with what makes us feel better.
But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus suggests a third way. Jesus says “Be on guard” and “Be alert”.
Followers of Jesus need not lash out in fear or retreat in denial. Our job is to stand up, be alert and to live out our Christian vocation, those promises we made in our baptism.
To return to A Wrinkle in Time, a point comes where Meg and her friends are given the call to stand up, to be alert and to live out their vocation. We pick up in Chapter 5.
Mrs. Which’s voice reverberated through the cave. “Therre will nno llonggerr bee sso many pplleasanntt thinggss too llookk att iff rressponssible ppeoplle ddo nnott ddoo ssomethingg abboutt thee unnppleasanntt oness.”. .
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”
L’Engle recognizes the many, many ways human beings can live out their vocations as light-bearers of the world, whether they are Christian or not. L’Engle was famously an Episcopalian, so she would have read our baptismal vows every time there was a baptism at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where she worshiped in New York City. And she knew that whether you had a vocation to ordained life, or making art, or being a scientist, or any thing else, really, you have the power to spread Christ’s light in the darkness.
I think of the mom in California who is collecting and sending baby carriers to refugee parents in Greece and the volunteers who are traveling to Greece to distribute and fit the carriers. I think of Sarah Staudt, the daughter of a Virginia Theological Seminary professor. She is now a lawyer who represents young people of color in the Chicago courts. I think of my former neighbor Sam Greenlee, who picks up Syrian refugees from the airport in Sacramento and drives them to their new lives. He writes their stories in Facebook posts so that we might be reminded of their humanity. I think of each of you who are teachers and nurses and doctors and social workers and painters and musicians. I think of you who use your wealth to bring beauty and education into the world. I think of each of you who prays for our world, who writes letters to our legislators, who teach your children the way of peace.
The dark cloud can seem so overwhelming, but we are not powerless. The light of Christ empowers each of us to do our part to illuminate the darkness. And so we stay alert, we keep our heads up and we dot he work of Christ while we await his return.