“But about that day and hour no one knows…”
Welcome to the Season of Advent! I love Advent. The old year passes away, as the new year comes. Change is in the air. We are called to be pensive, waiting. I appreciate how the Gospel steers the seasonal ship so well. We heard St. Luke’s little apocalypse last week. This week we hear Matthew’s itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny apocalypse. It is a pretty complex way to end and start a year.
I heard a story about a music director at an Episcopal church. (This is not a thinly veiled story about Lucy!) She was brand new and was from a more evangelical background; she just didn’t know about the pattern of liturgical churches. Fair enough, we’ve all got a lot to learn. The priest sent her the readings for Advent so she could get to work on music for the season. A few days later she emailed back, saying, “these readings aren’t very Christmas-y.”
What do Isaiah’s “swords into ploughshares” and St. Paul’s call to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” have to do with Christmas? What does the Flood and rapture stories about workers in a field and women grinding grain have to do with it? Well, if we are thinking Christmas in terms of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, all the Whos down in Whoville and our (and their) stockings hung with care, the answer is “just about nothing.”
Look around the sanctuary. The season changed from last week to this. What is noticeably absent here? Christmast! There are no lights. No garlands. No wreathes (not decorative ones… the Advent wreath is liturgical hardware). No tree (the one on Tina’s desk is a ministry, and it is not in here so it doesn’t count). Do you know why we don’t have any of that? It is not Christmas!
There is no judgement here! I love Christmas. Especially eggnog. In our home we stretch our holidays out. We are going to get our tree right after church. We get the tree and put lights on it on Advent 1; popcorn and cranberry strings Advent 2; for Gaudete Sunday (Advent 3), we add plain red balls, but they are awfully shiny; and for the 4th Sunday of Advent we put up the ornaments the children made, or have been collected over the years and we top the tree with our felted angel. Creches go out in there somewhere. And for Christmas itself, we celebrate it slowly, Hanukkah-like over the twelve days. Not only does that eliminate the overwhelming excess that is the nature of most middle class Christmas mornings, but it also stretches it out for Twelve days! (You can drink a lot of eggnog during twelve present openings). It is great, how we celebrate Christmas in our society! Ok, the planet-burying feeding frenzy of consumer consumption isn’t so great, but the weeks leading up to the celebration of the Mass of Christ, the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord is laden with family traditions and all the relationships therein. This truly is a most wonderful time of the year. It is just that all of that, the good the bad and the ugly of the Christmas season we are now immersed in is not Advent, it is pre-Christmas.
But then again, Christmas isn’t about gifts, or Beef Wellington, or even about our families and our beloved traditions passed down from generation to generation; Christmas is about God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and how our God became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Christmas is about the fact that “God so loved the world that He gave His only son.” God gave Him to us. And that is a big deal, and that is very against the grain of what nearly everyone else is doing, so against the grain that we need the whole season of Advent to prepare us for it.
I love Advent. Liturgically, it serves the same purpose as Lent (which I really, really love). These are seasons of focus, of preparation. Not preparing Christmas goodies or on-line wish lists, but a time of practice being ready for the Feast of the Incarnation. I love it because it is so distinctly counter-cultural; it gives us tools, and maybe more importantly, an opportunity, an invitation to see the world in different terms than most folks do, than we do most of the time, immersed as most of us are in our culture. This includes a reminder that God’s will is for peace, truly. That God’s will is for us to live wholesome lives, “…living honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not quarrelling and jealousy.” In Advent, we are called to align our priorities with those of God in Christ. And as St. Matthew’s wee apocalypse teaches, we are to practice seeing the world in terms of Kairos, God’s time, and not in terms of chronos, temporal, you know, tick-tock time, that most of us follow most of the time.
Time. The progress of History. This is a critical concern of Christianity, all the way back to Jesus. Think about how we celebrate Christmas: Nativity scenes, Mary and Joseph on their journey. We sing songs like “The First Noel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” We dig out our great-grandmother’s recipe for Spritz cookies and goose even though no one likes goose. Tradition! How many traditions we have here at Resurrection, we’ve been getting those beautiful wreathes from the farm-worker women in Woodburn for years (Last time to order today!). We always green the church after Mass on Advent 4. We always have a brief panic as we try to remember where the Advent wreathe and the Creche, and Mary and Joseph were put away last year. That is how we celebrate Christmas, and have for years and years. You have your ways, right?
What do all those ways we prepare for and celebrate Christmas have in common? What holds them together as a cohesive, cultural and religious event? The past. They are all about what happened in a moment in time a long time ago, and then celebrating that moment in the same way year after year. You’ve heard it said that you can call somewhere home when you have celebrated two Christmas’ there? There is stability in thngs like Christmas tradition– it provides it and can be a sign of it.
The Mass of Christ, the Feast of His Incarnation is about a certain night 2000 years ago when the Word became flesh in a barn in a third or fourth-tier city in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, and it is essential for us to remember that. (Both that is happened and how unexpectedly it happened). But our faith, the Christian faith, is not rearward looking, contrary to the opinions of most South Eugenians. We do have one foot in the past, tradition matters; and we are we are right here, in the sacrament of the present moment; and one foot in the future. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. We are always in the right now. We need to look back to orient ourselves, to anchor ourselves and give our ancestors a vote, and we are heading into the future, a future with a lot of unknowns, a lot of open questions, but the assurance that in the fullness of time all manner of things shall be well. That is what Advent is about. Putting all of that together: then, now, when. In Advent we hold the memories we carry year after year, sometimes generation after generation. We bear the struggles and joys of this very moment. We rest in the promises of Christ for the future, confident in our Hope, assured of our Salvation, even though there is some understandable anxiety about our uncertain near- to mid-term future. And all of this is bathed in the certain knowledge that the Commonwealth of God is near, like the Word, it is very near to us. That is what Advent is really about, Charlie Brown.
This brings out readings into seasonal focus, doesn’t it? (Or here is where we see the readings bringing the season into focus). The word that Isaiah saw was of God’s reign, God’s call to learn the ways of peace. That is not now. Peace is not the story of our past, either. Or there is St. Paul’s vision of laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. There is a lot of reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealously – and that’s just the front page of the New York Times! These texts point us to the promise of the future. These texts point us towards Hope.
But to make sure we don’t get carried away with mistletoe and that bowl of eggnog, Matthew reminds us that God never plays by the rules. Long, long ago everyone was just bee-bopping along, having a wicked good time and out of nowhere whoosh – the flood washed everyone but Noah and his family away. I guess they were having too wicked of a good time. Whoosh. We’ll just be living our daily lives, even our generally fine and decent daily lives and next thing you know the subduction zone gives, an ice shelf collapses, the climatic feedback loops turn out to be a whole, whole lot worse than we thought, and a effects are felt a whole, whole lot faster then expected and all of a sudden folks stop showing up at work; friends sort of vanish, our devastating crisis of homelessness right now will seem like nothing to the waves of refugees piled up at borders around the world. “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Advent is a time for us to get our our spiritual affairs in order. We do not know what the future holds for us between now and the hour of our death or the return of Christ our King and our God, whichever comes first. So we must prepare now. Keeping bottled water and one of Dean Still’s Rocket Stoves is one way to prepare (and a very practical one), but how about beating your personal swords into ploughshares, your verbal or emotional spear of choice in into a pruning hook? The peace Isaiah saw is not going to happen throughout the world in our lifetimes, it is not, but the process can start now. In your home. In your office or classroom or community. Remember what is actually important. Be sober both literally and figuratively. Embrace light. Wholesomeness is God’s plan, things we do in the light of day and in full view of family and friends, neighbors and passers-by. That’s the future we are promised, but it takes work, and it is hard to resist temptation. As the bumper sticker reminds us, “Come to the Dark Side, it is fun and we have cookies.” They always do. Thanks be to God for Advent. This is a time to practice for the time that is to come.
Two thousand years ago, a most unexpected thing happened. Christ was born. And not only that, Christ was born among us. This Advent remember that. This Advent in particular, with the world as it is, with the wars and rumors of wars, instability in the jet stream, Atlantic currents and governments around the world, including our own, remember that when that happened, the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph on their journey, the Wise men on theirs and wicked King Herod, all of that, remember that no one was ready for it. No one was ready for God coming in such an unexpected hour, in such an unexpected place, in such an unexpected way. In this very moment that is something to hold out hope for. AMEN