New Old News
I learned a new phrase this past week from a new friend, and it falls into that category of words and phrases that I wish I’d known a long time before I finally learned them, because they describe a thing that you know must happen but don’t know the word for.
My friend is a journalist, and the phrase she used in a conversation was “news peg.” I didn’t know what a “news peg” was, so I had to stop her to ask for an explanation.
And this is what it is: Let’s say you’ve been researching a story about something, or you’ve been writing a brilliant essay on a subject of public concern. You can’t get anyone to pay attention to your great idea, because it may seem important to you, but to everyone else it’s just an idea.
But then something happens in the news that makes your idea suddenly the most relevant thing in the world, and everyone wants to read your essay. That thing—the thing that happened that made your idea suddenly make sense—that’s a news peg. You literally peg your story, or your idea, to this thing that in the news that has just happened, to get people to think beyond the event and into something deeper.
A news peg is like a gift from the cosmos if you’re the person who has been writing and thinking about something for a long time. Suddenly you have a moment in which the whole world is paying attention to this passion you’ve been nurturing for so long. Your op-ed finally gets published. The journal accepts your article. You get invitations to appear on news shows. Your fifteen minutes have suddenly arrived.
I’m sharing this with you, this new phrase I learned, because as I reflected on the lessons appointed for us to hear throughout this season of Advent I had the sinking feeling that the whole world around us has suddenly become a news peg for these old, urgently new ideas we heard in the gospel lesson for today. We are living through a news peg for Advent.
These lessons, these ideas, are as old as the church. For a long time we’ve been trying to get people to pay attention to them.
Even when-—especially when—people came to church because it was the social thing to do, we were trying in every way we could think of to get them to understand that Advent isn’t about preparing for shopping; it’s about preparing for the shattering truth that all this, all this sorrow, all this woe, all this injustice, all this pride, all this pretension, all these institutions, all of these castles we have built, all of it, will be swept away.
And all of it will be weighed in the balance against the standard that stubbornly wouldn’t go away—the standard about whether we loved our neighbors as ourselves; the standard about whether we lived fully the lives God gave us to live; the standard about whether we gave ourselves to building communities with the people God gave us to share this life with; the standard about seeking God in all things, in all circumstances, in all people, and in ourselves.
That is what the message of Advent is—or at least what it is supposed to be. It’s not about the Christmas carols already blaring in every shop you walk into. It’s not about how much we’ll spend on line this year.
It’s not really even about the baby in the manger.
Sure, we will celebrate Christmas—don’t worry—and it will be grand and glorious, just like it always is. But we’ll celebrate it because the church centers its cycle of time on the basis of things that have already happened—the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the ascension of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit.
We use these things to order the passing of each year because each year brings so much disorder. But even more than that, we anchor our story on the basis of things that have happened to help us grapple with the things that are going to happen. And that is what Advent is really about—the things that have yet to happen.
To the world outside, this is news. But to us, it’s old news. If it has a new kind of relevance today, if the shaking of the foundations around us makes people sit up and take notice and wonder just what on earth is going to happen next, then maybe it’s New Old News—new on the ears of people who weren’t paying attention, maybe, but old news to us.
Old news, maybe, but serious business nonetheless. Advent is a time for us to take account of ourselves, because the message within it is the certain truth that we shall one day have to give an account to God. We will not be asked whether we got the best deals at Christmas, or compiled the best résumé, or got into the best school, or earned the most money. We won’t be asked how many followers we had on Twitter or how many friends we had on Facebook.
We won’t even be asked how much we gave to the church—or whether we got elected bishop.
What we’ll be asked is whether we made the most of the selves we were given—and whether, in turn, we gave fully of ourselves to God and to others.
We’ll be asked if we followed love wherever it led us, and whatever it asked of us—or whether instead we hedged our bets and played for small stakes.
We’ll be asked, not about the big decisions we made, but about the cumulative total of all the small decisions—all the small encounters, all the small choices about how to spend our time, all the small risks we didn’t take.
Some days, these days, it feels as though the very powers of the heavens are being shaken. Some days, these days, we feel faint from fear and foreboding. The burden is too much, the risks are too great, the losses too painful. But for us—for us, that is time to stand up. For us that is time to raise our heads, and look to the East. For us, that is the time to lay hold of the promise that has been given us, and resolve that we will make it more and more part of our life—that we will make it our life. Amen.