"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

La Veillee

          Advent always begins with the command for us to “watch,” to remain alert to God’s action in our world. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus rather mysteriously says, “So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.” When I first read that line, I thought, “What a frustrating comment! He sounds like a pompous puzzle-maker, handing us an incredibly complex puzzle and then refusing to give out any hints about its solution, tantalizingly telling us instead that everything we need to know is right in front of us.” How are we supposed to know what to do? What does it mean to “be on our guard?” Surely it does not mean to look for signs of the end in all of our newspaper headlines or to stir up fear in the guise of Bible study, like the preachers on those early-morning cable shows.
Since I used to be a French teacher, I sometimes amuse myself by reading the Scriptures in French. This time it paid off! The French command to “watch!” in Mark 13 is “veillez!” That verb “veillez” jumped out at me, because it is related to the noun for a special kind of vigil. Down in the South of France, near where I used to live, there is an old tradition in which villagers meet at night in each others’ homes for what is called a “veillee.” Men and women, old and young, grandparents, sleeping babies and little children, gather in an old farmhouse kitchen, in front of a cozy fire, and they roast chestnuts and tell stories into the night. They live in a poor, desolate area of France, high on a windswept plateau, far removed from the weathy, tourist cities of the Mediterranean coast. Their land is poor and arid, and the cliffs and caves of the ominous-looking countryside resemble the rugged landscapes of the American West. It is a land full of fears, hardships, and wearying isolation. So the people gather at night for a vigil. They gather together to “watch” over the night. They tell ancient stories of ghosts, werewolves, and tales of encounters with supernatural beings that fill the dark hollows and shadows of their landscape. Their stories allow them to talk about their fears and to try to explain the difficulties of their lives, and their gatherings give them a sense of family and community and history in the midst of a poverty and an isolation that would otherwise crush their spirits completely. These people know what it means to have to stay alert, to watch, to be on their guard.
A little to the northeast of these villages, there is another village called “le Chambon sur Lignon” that has been the object of books, studies, and even films. Isolated on one of those cold, windswept plateaus, a community of poor, subsistence farmers, Le Chambon became famous for its “watching.” In addition to stories of ghosts and werewolves, villagers in the mostly protestant town of Le Chambon would gather in the evenings to tell stories of their Huguenot past: Stories of faith and of resistance in the midst of violent persecution, and steadfastness in the face of intolerance, stories linking them to their heroes of the Protestant Reformation. During the troubled times of the Second World War, a young, idealistic pastor, in disfavor with the church authorities because of his shocking pacifist beliefs, was shuttled off to be the pastor of poor, isolated Le Chambon. This pastor joined in the nightly vigils, adding Bible study to the local stories, spending days and hours examining with his little community the words of Jesus, those words that will never pass away.
Slowly, imperceptibly even, Jesus’ words became part of the hearts and minds of these ordinary villagers. And then, one day, strangers started to straggle into the village, knocking on farmhouse doors and asking for food, shelter, and refuge from persecution. They were Jews, hounded by their own governments, fleeing transport and death in concentration camps to the east. And the villagers of Le Chambon took them in. Working together, as a close community, they hid them, hundreds of them, in their homes. They shared their meager food with them. They provided them with false identity papers. They secretly filled their local school with their children …. For years, they did all of this without hesitation, disobeying the laws of their own Vichy government, helping perfect strangers very different from themselves, facing possible imprisonment and even death for them. When interviewed after the war by journalists eager to praise their actions and to make heroes out of them, the villagers of Le Chambon could not explain their actions. In a documentary, some of them say things like, “We did it ‘just because.’” “It was the normal thing to do.” “We didn’t have any theory. We just did what had to be done.” “People came to our doors and asked for help. How could we not open them?”
The people of Le Chambon, during the long winter nights of vigil, had huddled together sharing the transforming words of Jesus. Without realizing it, they had learned how to be on their guard. They were alert, when history knocked on their doors and called on them to act. They knew from the stories of their own history and from the stories of the Scriptures, what was expected of them as Christians. Together, they were ready to face trials and tribulations. They did not spend their time searching the heavens for signs or clamoring for control over the future—or even for control over their own lives. As their pastor himself wrote, “in times of crisis … Predictions are a refuge for cowards … There are dangers involved in trying to predict the effects of your actions on your own life, your family’s lives, the lives of your parish, and the lives of your countrymen.”[1] Instead of making predictions, this pastor and his flock chose to follow the words of Jesus, to love their neighbors as themselves, and to help the unjustly persecuted innocents around them.
In the words of our Scriptures, Jesus has truly “told us everything ahead of time.” It’s all there, as it has been for 2000 years: the good Samaritan, the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the healings, the resurrection encounters, the passion and Cross …
“Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will never pass away.” May we remember to watch with those words. To gather together in a dark, stormy world, to share the burdens of our worries and fears, and to listen to the stories. To teach them to our children. To pass them lovingly from hand to hand, like we pass the chalice and paten. To “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” as it says in one of my favorite Collects. I don’t think that we can be the courageous people that Jesus calls on us to be without making our Christian story a deep part of who we are. I hope that we will be able to find time at St. Thomas for more Bible Study, for more classes for adults and for our young people to study the words that will never pass away. For with the words of Jesus embedded in our minds and hearts, united as a Christian community with a story, we are awake to truth. We will not be sleeping when it is our turn to act responsibly in the insecurities of the present. Let us keep the “veillee,” the vigil. Let us watch together! Amen.

[1] Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed.

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