I am hanging out with older people more than I used to. After church recently, I found myself in conversations about arthritis, detached retinas, acid reflux, retirement plans and grandchildren, obviously. It struck me as a strange phenomenon. What’s with me and these older people? Then it hit me: I am older. Cherished words spoken by John Westerhoff then resurfaced in my increasingly unreliable memory.
Years ago, during a seminar, Westerhoff — theologian, priest and Christian formation scholar — stepped away from the lectern and said, “You know, we Christians are always asking the wrong question. We’re always asking what God wants us to do. The better question is, ‘What is God already doing, and how can we co-operate?’”
An excellent question at any stage of life and for every season of Advent: What is God doing, and how can I co-operate? I am starting to ask it as an old guy: eligible for the seniors’ discount on Thursdays at Shoppers Drug Mart, troubled eyes, a digestive system now disturbed by foods I used to consider friends. And I am once again walking the Camino de Cancer. My wife, Pearl, and I are empty nesters. We stand on the cusp of the third trimester of life, scratching our heads, wondering what God is doing.
The season of Advent — pregnant with anticipation — is generally the preserve of children and restive youth. Charles Dickens famously opined, “For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.” An angel told a teenager what God was doing, and Mary co-operated.
Other than Mary and her baby, however, the story is inhabited by oldsters. By most accounts, Joseph was no spring chicken. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her old man Zechariah — both of them long in the tooth and well beyond their childbearing years — conceive. Righteous old Simeon clutches the baby Jesus in his gnarled and arthritic hands, his weak old heart beating for joy as he prophesizes to the baby’s mother.
The innkeeper — someone, I imagine, who’s thinking about turning the operation over to his kids and retiring in Florida — is compelled to make room for a new birth, for something transformative to happen, even if it is only out back in the stable of his life.
The magi are not on a gap-year road trip in search of meaning. They are wise elders who, after years of astrological studies, set out on a journey that is the culmination of their life’s work.
Were the shepherds young, or have we just seen too many Sunday school pageants cast with crook-wielding boys in housecoats? Tinfoil halos and cute-as-a-button winged tots to the contrary, the “multitude of heavenly host” are ageless, are they not?
The young and faithful often ask, “What new thing is God doing in my life?” and “How can I best co-operate?” As we age, we are tempted to settle, to lower our expectations. We can become nostalgic about the past and resist the inevitability of the future. We swap adventure for a good bed. We keep an eye on our mutual funds. We become preoccupied with safety. We golf. We are pretty sure our first grandchild is the Messiah.
And those of us walking the trail of mystery are also pleasantly surprised by a niggling feeling that the One Love isn’t done with us. We contemplate what might bring meaning to life as we age. We begin to ask what God is doing — in our aches and wisdom and freedom — and how can we co-operate? That, it seems to me, is the spiritual task of Advent at every age.
Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.
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