This is the time of year when tables are spread and saints are remembered, when stories are told and songs fill the air.
In these days, the distance between the past and the future disappears.
In the upstairs hallway of my grandparents’ house, there was a metal grate that would let the heat from below warm the upstairs during the cold winters. As children, we grandkids used to sneak down the hallway to look through that vent at the table below us. I remember how everything looked different through that vent, and how the voices had a distant quality that made even familiar stories sound strange.
I loved looking down on that table when I was a child. Even more, however, I loved sitting at that family table, because the stories I heard the adults telling at the table didn’t just describe a past that I hadn’t lived.
They were also showing me a future that I had yet to live.
When I was a child at that table, there was one story in particular that I always enjoyed hearing my grandmother tell. It was the one about the Sunday my grandfather stood up in the middle of the pastor’s sermon to sing a solo. Her telling of that story was even more entertaining when my grandfather was at the table with us, because he insisted that her version of that story was wrong.
While they each believed that the pastor had indeed invited my grandfather to interrupt the sermon with a song, my grandmother believed that he had done so on the wrong Sunday. No matter how much my grandfather argued that he had done exactly what the pastor had asked him to do, he never persuaded my grandmother to correct her version of the story. She remained convinced that my grandfather sang his song too soon.
I have no way of knowing which of them told the story right. But I like to imagine that my grandfather did sing too soon, because that would place him in some excellent company.
Maybe it’s the time of year, but I’m thinking of the prophet Isaiah, and of Mary, a couple of folks known in the church for singing ahead of time.
Do you remember their songs?
In the midst of a broken and fearful world, Isaiah sang of God’s promised day that he believed would surely dawn. He cried out for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to show up and set things right. He sang of a table filled with rich food and well-aged wines, of how God was going to swallow up death forever and wipe the tears from every eye. He even sang to those in exile as if they were already on their way home.
And Mary’s voice continued God’s song.
She was so convinced about what God was going to do through her child that she dared to sing in the past tense, as if it had already come true. “God has filled the hungry with good things,” she sang, even though the brokenness still surrounded her.
Their trust in God’s promises enabled Isaiah and Mary to sing ahead of time.
We today learn that type of trust at the Lord’s Table, where we gather not only to remember the past, but also to see the future toward which God is leading us. At the table, both memory and hope move into the present, giving us strength for the living of these days.
Since her death about fourteen years ago, I always think of my grandmother on All Saints’ Day.
When she died, I made one final visit to her house, where I climbed those stairs once more, walked down the hallway, and knelt on the floor over that vent. And, for a moment at least, I heard again the sounds of people feasting at that table. It was in a real sense not just a looking back, or even a glance at an empty table in that moment. It was as if I could see that promised day when all of God’s people shall feast together in the kingdom of heaven dawning in my midst.
And that vent became a portal through which the deep memory of the past filled the present, leading me to imagine a day where everything God once promised will have come to pass. And once you see that, it’s impossible to sing too soon.
****Thanks to my cousin, Jane Parish Rife, for the pictures included in this post.
****A version of this post appeared in the 2016 October-December These Days.