Here we are – part way through Advent. How did that happen?
At this point in the year 2020, it’s become pretty much a cliché to say this year is like no other we have known. And it’s true that most of us have not known such a year, but our forebears certainly have known years this bad and far worse. Even some alive today will remember the Advent seasons during the Second World War – which were no doubt more somber. Still – this is a different Advent then we’re used to and that should prompt some different reflection.
Of course, the season of Advent and the season of “shopping days until Christmas” tend to overlap in our commerce-driven world. And I dare say those of us in the religious world have far more ability to deal with the challenges of 2020 emotionally, spiritually, and existentially. For many shops and retailers this current COVID-19 dampened shopping season may be un-survivable. For the travel and hospitality industries it may be a hopeless rather than a hopeful season. These are our brothers and sisters, and we must share their sorrows – that is what Jesus calls us to do.
So, in this year like no other, what might an Advent like no other bring. What are the spiritual opportunities in this crisis?
We look forward in Advent to the coming of Jesus in the flesh – Emmanuel… God with Us… It is a task of remembering. “Remembering” is not just an act of nostalgia… a trip down memory lane… Remembering is literally the act of putting the pieces, the members, back together. Our Jewish brothers and sisters understand their cycle of holy days as a re-living of events rather than recalling. That is part of our inheritance and while our commercial culture thrives on sentimentality… recalling, our faith calls us to remember.
Part of our work during Advent is to prepare our hearts for God with us. Are we really ready for Jesus in our world? We’ve been hearing various parables for the past several weeks about Servants and gifts – some who did well and some who didn’t do so well. How have we been managing the gifts that God has entrusted to us? Even overlooking the impact of COVID, can we really expect Jesus to say, “well done, good and faithful servants.” Or might we be relying more on the fact that God is infinitely forgiving…
God’s love and God’s justice are two faces of the same coin. They cannot be separated. A world filled with injustice is a world deprived of God’s love. As followers of Jesus, we are called to bring light into the world – the light of Christ, of God’s love. But COVID has shone a bright light on the injustice in our world. It has not created that injustice, just made it harder to overlook.
The condition of our world is distressing. But that is ultimately joyful news because there is nothing more joyful than sharing God’s love. And COVID has helped make clear how much opportunity, how much need there is for us to share God’s love.
There is a second layer of our Advent expectation. We look forward to remembering Jesus’ coming, but we also look forward to Jesus’ coming again… the second coming.
For some of our fellow followers of Jesus that is an apocalyptic expectation. The idea of Jesus’ second coming signals the end of time… God’s final judgement… and indeed last week we started Advent reading from Mark’s Gospel in which we hear that God is sending angels from the ends of the earth… more ominously, we are told that the sun and moon will both be darkened, and the stars will fall from heaven.
This week’s apocalypse is a little more subtle. Mark puts Isaiah’s prophesy in front of us. Isaiah calls us to prepare the way of the Lord – to make a straight highway through the desert. Every valley shall be lifted up and mountains and hills will be laid low. I can’t hear these words without Handel’s great Oratorio “Messiah” playing in my mind.
But are these really words of comfort from Isaiah? Or is this more ominous? The leveling of mountains and smoothing of the rough places is not so much a construction project as destruction… nothing short of cataclysmic. Everything about our world is being shaken in this vision.
Even the gentle opening call to comfort Jerusalem, to speak tenderly to her is reminding us that Jerusalem has, in fact, been destroyed. As Isaiah puts it, Jerusalem has received double punishment for all her sins from the Lord’s hand. Isaiah is warning us… telling us that Jerusalem has been punished and we are next… Indeed, as Mark is recording his Gospel, Jerusalem is on the brink of destruction… again…
In our corner of the church, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about “end times” but we know that in some other corners of the church it is front and center. And to be honest – it was front and center in the minds of some of the first followers of Jesus, especially Saint Paul. Is it something we should be thinking about more? Especially in Advent?
Well – Mark has been putting hints of Apocalypse in front of us, but when it comes to planning for the end time, Mark redirects us. We don’t know, and nobody can know, not even Jesus can know when the end is coming… so we need to live our lives. We need to get on with life and not waste time.
We do not live in constant fear and worry. Rather we live in faith and in God’s love, sharing God’s love with everyone. Keep in mind that Mark’s telling of the Gospel, as well as Mathew’s, Luke’s, and John’s, are recorded after Paul’s letters. Paul seems to have expected the world to end within his lifetime. Mark is telling us to live in love, not in fear pending destruction… to live in anticipation of God’s grace, not in expectation of God’s wrath…
Advent used to be the “other” great penitential season. Advent and Lent were seasons when we were meant to give time to reflecting on our own sinfulness and engaging in acts of penitence. Advent involved fasting and prayer – hard to reconcile with our commercial period of frantic sales and shopping…
Advent as a penitential season sort of fell into the mists of history in the 1960s for various reasons. By now, far from being a time of fasting, Advent is often kept with chocolate-laced Advent Calendars… Advent has become a season of indulgence.
But this year COVID seems to have decided that we will return a penitential character to Advent – like it or not. And this will bring tension and strife. There are those who will hate people for wearing masks and those who will hate people for not wearing masks. Those who believe we are committing mass suicide if we go to church and those who believe were committing mass suicide if we don’t go out and shop. Someday we’ll know who was right… although we may borrow from Mark and tell ourselves that when that day will be… only God knows.
This Advent we’re dealing with issues of life and death and it’s not clear what is right and what is wrong. It’s a frightening time and anger seems to like to hold the hand of fear.
But let the words of the Second Letter of Peter ring in our ears – while you are waiting, strive to be found at peace. Our peace comes not from idleness, but from the sharing of God’s love. After all, the prophet Micah tells us the sacrifice that God wants is that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Let that be our sacrifice in this penitential season of Advent.