Now that thanksgiving is behind us and we have awakened bleary eyed in the early morning of black Friday to seek out that very special bargain. I have to ask, is it worth either staying up all night to get that place in line in the HOPE of being one of a few lucky people who just might score a 55” TV for 299.99 or whatever it is.
The holiday decorations have been in Costco since August there was Christmas music on the radio before Thanksgiving. So, now what?
Now, it seems we wait. In the cycle of the Church calendar, we have entered into a new liturgical year- the season of Advent. Literally, the word Advent means, “coming”. Theologically, for Christians, Advent has to do with preparing for the coming of Christ. We change the color of the hangings in the chapel from Green to Blue. On this first Sunday of we add the penitential order. But the season of Advent is not to be confused with Lent. We also light our advent wreathe as we prepare and count the days toward the birth of the Savior. This short period is not primarily a time of penitence but rather a time to joyfully prepare for the coming of Christ.
In Advent the liturgy deals with contrasts: light and dark; joy and sorrow; beginning and end; and, especially, chronological time and God’s time. We discover in Advent that God’s time is of the kind described not by clocks and calendars but in terms like “the time is ripe,” or “in the fullness of time.” (See, for example, Galatians 4.)
We have these Candles in an Advent wreath to help us visually mark chronological time. One candle is lit for each Sunday in Advent. Remember I said the symbolism of contrasts? As the days become shorter the light from the candles grows until when it is darkest, that is, the longest night of the year on Dec 21, the wreath is the brightest- just four days before Christmas.
But it would not be honest of us to simply see Advent as a sweet sugar plumb run up to Christmas. Yes, it IS that, but if we consider the readings before us, the beginning of the liturgical year is anything but sweet. The first Sunday of Advent begins the new year celebration by focusing on the End of time – and that’s end with a capital E- with the expectation of Jesus’ final return among us. There is a fancy word for this incredible end of the cosmos- it’s not the Apocalypse- It’s the Eschaton.
The First Sunday of Advent is concerned with the Lord’s return as Judge of his people and of the whole created order. The eschaton and Jesus’ return is not simply a return which happens haphazardly, but neither can it be forecast by the clock or the calendar. There is a theme of “wake up! Be ready!”
The birth of Jesus marked the first arrival of Jesus, but for Matthew, the entire life of Jesus, his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection comprise are all part of the Great Plan in which church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. The End has begun. Matthew strives to answer the question: how are we to live in-between “the already” of the salvation we have experienced in Christ and the “not yet” of that salvation not being fully consummated in the world? I will admit that Matthew’s approach is rather complex and multi layered. But know this: Matthew is peaking largely metaphorically and not literally. He is not predicting what will happen at the very end when Jesus returns. He is describing a a state of being- a way of living in the faith that calls the Christian community to live in such a way AS IF Jesus’ return were immanent.
Living faithfully in this present time of Christian discipleship does not mean that we can rest on God’s grace. Together, in these four weeks there is a sense of hope, expectation, and urgency. Something is happening, something wonderful, yet uncertain.
Each and every day of our lives is filled with an Advent hope. Advent is not simply a time to await the coming of Christmas. And I would also suggest that it is not just a time for Christians. Advent is a time to renew and enlarge our hopes, to tap into the deepest hopes of the human race for the age that is to come- hopes of justice- hopes of liberation- hopes of love and forgiveness. There is a sense of urgency that wakes us up from our complacency.
Advent challenges us to prepare ourselves and our world for the full coming of the kingdom. That Jesus is coming doesn’t’ mean we live our lives and our faith in fear. We live it in hope that Advent challenges in preparing for that same kingdom to break down the barriers of race, culture, age, religion, sex, orientation, or and find new beginnings. That is the kind of world, the kind of kingdom Isaiah is speaking about in today’s readings. A world where God’s presence will be the judge where people will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We city folk don’t see many plough shares or pruning hooks theses days, but Isaiah is talking about talking the tools of war and melting them down to make something new, something that can be used to feed the hungry and build communities rather than destroy.
We need advent, we need this time for words of hope for a better tomorrow. We need this time to be reminded that darkness, though it may seem to be growing cannot over power the light. That God, is still very real and present in the midst of it all and will usher in a kingdom and a kingship that is like no other. That kingdom of justice and peace cannot exist without the power of God working in us to make it so.
“ ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ ” This is the message of Advent. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.