Alpha and Omega
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Nohemi Gonzales was a star in the design department at California State University in Long Beach. She was a junior, a first-generation Mexican-American; her mother is a hair-dresser.
Nohemi thought she won the lottery when she went to Paris to study design during her semester abroad. Where else would you study design but in Paris? She crisscrossed the city day and night, from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame, taking it all in. She was learning to use a 3-D modeling computer program, in French, of course, which made it one of the hardest things she’d ever done, and one of the best.
Last Friday night, she was having a good time at a popular bistro on the Rue de Charonne with her California State friend Niran when the terrorists started shooting randomly. Niran scrambled away, but Nohemi was killed. So far as they know, she was the only American killed in these attacks.
The next day, Niran wrote, “I lost one of my good friends and I’m still trying to process this all but it’s just too much to take. I’m grateful that you were my classmate and a true friend. Rest in peace Nohemi (little one). I hope heaven has an unlimited supply of baby pugs for you.”
Life can be so cruel and random and inscrutable that sometimes that James Russell Lowell poem leaps unbidden to your mind: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” You start to ask yourself “Who’s in charge here? Who’s running this show?”
That was the question seven baby Christian churches in Asia Minor were asking their pastor around the turn of the first century A.D. In response, their pastor, a wild man later called St. John the Divine, or St. John the Theologian, wrote a letter which became the last and oddest book of the Bible.
So here’s the background to this morning’s scripture lesson: The best, and sometimes the worst, thing about Christianity, and its mother faith Judaism, is the extreme monotheism preached and practiced there. Judeo-Christianity demands uncompromising allegiance. In our faith, God is so great and so big that there is no room for parallel or subordinate loyalties.
It all goes back to the first of the Ten Commandments, right? “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” There is no room in Judaism for demigods or JV divinities or assistant deities. “Thou shalt have no other gods before God Godself,” said the Jews, always and everywhere, like a broken record, or a CD player with a stuck laser beam.
Later, the Christian Church would transpose this ancient song into a new key when it insisted that “Jesus Christ is Lord of all and everything, and no one else.”
So around the turn of the first century A.D., a capable but ruthless autocrat named Domitian becomes Emperor in Rome and decides that he is going to unify the disparate, multi-hued, polyglot residents of his sprawling and almost ungovernable empire by declaring himself god of the whole thing. The Emperor will be God. And you can see how this will become problematic for Jews and Christians who insisted on one lone, solitary, omnipotent deity.
Kneeling to Caesar was not much of a problem for the average Roman citizen, right? Well, it must have insulted her intelligence. She must have said to herself, “Really, you want me to kneel to this bozo? Really? He makes mistakes; they all do. He’s going to die; they all do.”
But once you’ve said that to yourself, you cross your fingers behind your back and you take a knee and go along to get along. I mean, you already have a closet-full of curious idols and a stadium-full of misbehaving, quarreling gods like Jupiter, Neptune, Mercury, Mars, and Venus; what’s one more god to throw into the already crowded pantheon, right? “Sure, no problem, I’ll add Emperor Domitian to my god-collection.”
But Christians and Jews, with their uncompromising monotheism, just could not and would not take that knee. And they’re getting killed for it, literally.
So Pastor John, already exiled to the prison island of Patmos, the Alcatraz of the first-century Mediterranean, writes to remind his seven Asian churches what’s really going on:
Grace to you and peace from the God who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth….‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Pastor John calls Jesus ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth.’ Over a multiplicity of kings, says John, there is the one real King. Over the midget royals, there is one genuine royal, Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says God in John’s curious letter, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the one who is and who was and who is to come.” In other words, way back when at the beginning of time, before there was anything, there was not nothing; God was there. Way far into the future when time ceases to be and the world will be no more, there will not be nothing; God will be there.
God is Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the beginning and the end, our origin and our destiny, and the whole tragicomic human opera that spins out beneath the burning stars unfolds only in the plenitude of God’s beautiful being.
We are not nearly as besieged as those Christians John wrote to so long ago, but sometimes it seems as if the dark side is gaining on us—in Beirut, in Paris, in Bamako—and so this is the scripture we want to hear on this special day in the Church Calendar, on Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year, in some ways the apex or zenith of the Church Year. Next week we start all over with the first Sunday of Advent.
So I love the waning days of November. First the Church asks me to pay homage to Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Then four days later my President asks me to give thanks for all I have to Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end, the giver of every good and perfect gift.
So this is my favorite time of year, better than Christmas. I love November’s leaden skies and its Siberian winds, and the carpet of gold it lays across the forest floor.
A few days ago I went to visit my father in Michigan, and Dudley the golden retriever always comes along, of course, because he is the movie star of my dad’s nursing home.
After our visit, I took the dog for a walk in a sprawling park that is densely forested with maples and oaks. Suddenly I looked up and could not find him. He never strays far from my side, but I could not find him, and it was because everywhere I looked, the forest floor was carpeted with fallen leaves the same golden hue as his flaxen fur; he blended right in; finally I spotted him, about 20 feet away, by his mahogany eyes and his coal black nose. November’s naked branches had opened up a sprawling blond vista veiled from sight just a month before. In heaven, they say, the streets are paved with gold; here too, if we would only open our eyes.
So this time of year, I try to remind myself of the unmerited grace that has somehow come my way, and then the larger trick, of course, is to turn that seasonal sentiment into a consistent, never-ceasing perspective.
Earlier this year, David Brooks had a nice column in the Times. He says that most people are grateful at least some of the time—after someone saves you from a mistake, for instance, or walks the dog when you’ve sprained your ankle.
But then he goes on to talk about those who are dispositionally grateful. These folk are grateful by nature, all the time. They can’t help themselves.
And these folks, says Mr. Brooks, are a little bit counter-cultural, because we live in a capitalist meritocracy. In a capitalist meritocracy, we all learn to be self-sufficient, and after years of working at self-sufficiency, you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that you don’t need other people. You get what you pay for, and you earn what you deserve.
You remember Bart Simpson’s prayer at the dinner table, right? “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” That’s from a capitalist meritocracy.
The dispositionally grateful, on the other hand, always feel as if they’re deeply indebted to the rest of the world. All their ink is red and they will never be able to repay what the world has given them. The families who loved them, the schools which educated them, the companies who pay them, the congregations they laugh with and cry with, the friends who tell them they are cherished and cherished and cherished, it’s all too much, it’s all undeserved, they are constantly, constantly in awe, they will never, ever, be able to repay the debt, if they live to be 100, they will never be able to pay it back.
These people are pleasant to be around.
One last thing, and then I’ll quit. Last fall there was an article in The New Yorker about Billy Joel. The title of the article was “Thirty-Three-Hit Wonder.” That’s how many Top 40 Hits Billy Joel has had in his career, more than twice as many as Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, or The Eagles. Last year Billy Joel played twelve concerts at Madison Square Garden, once a month, all year long, every one of them sold out.
For a long time, they sold the first two rows of seats in front of the stage at huge, premium prices–thousands of dollars apiece. And of course, who would be sitting in the front two rows at every Billy Joel concert? Wall Street guys and hedge fund barons from Greenwich and captains of industry from the Hamptons and celebrities from LA and NBA stars from Miami who can afford to pay $5,000 for a ticket to a Billy Joel concert and arrive with entourages in giant Escalades with tinted windows. And all these big important people would be sitting there with their arms crossed and aggressive body language and bored looks on their faces, as if to say, “Entertain me, Piano Man.” They are winners in the capitalist meritocracy David Brooks was talking about. You get what you deserve.
And I know just how Billy Joel feels about that. There are a few guys like that—and they’re always guys—in every congregation I’ve ever preached to. They’re out there sprinkled in among most of the other people who want to be at divine worship, and they’re sitting there with looks of ennui on their faces, with their arms crossed—sometimes figuratively but most of the time literally—as if to say, “I am too smart to pray the prayers and I am too cool to sing the hymns and I am too bored to listen to this bozo’s sermon.” So I know how Billy Joel feels.
Anyway, Billy Joel got tired of playing his music for bored people who have experienced everything in life and therefore take everything for granted sitting in the two rows closest to the stage where Billy can see their listless faces up close and personal and in Technicolor. So Billy Joel decides to take those premium seats off the ticket market, and now what Billy Joel does is: he gives those choice tickets to his crew, and five minutes before the concert starts, he sends his crew up into the cheap seats near the roof of the Garden, way above the Jumbotron, and the crew hand out these choice tickets at random to people who thought they’d be watching this concert through binoculars, and now there they are, 48″ from the stage, chatting and high-fiving with Billy Joel, and touching the toes on the lead guitarist’s Chuck Taylor’s, getting their own faces on the Jumbotron and thinking they just went to rock concert Paradise and they scream their heads off and wave their arms and Billy Joel gets the adoring audience he most certainly deserves and he feels very, very appreciated. And as for those displaced fans? They think to themselves: How did I ever deserve this? I paid for the cheap seats; and here I am in the front row.
So, you have a front-row seat to the pageant of creation, the music of the spheres, the drama of history. There is nourishment for your metabolism, shelter for your little ones, raiment for your person, challenge for your intellect, enrichment for your spirit, opportunity for your ambition, and space for your flourishing.
Did you earn it? Did you pay for it? Or did you gain that seat by the largesse of your Host, the grace of God, the unmerited favor of the One who is, and who was, and who always will be?
All praise swell, and all glory accrue, to Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, our origin and destiny, Amen.
Nick Paumgarten, “Thirty-Three-Hit Wonder,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2014, pp. 54-65.