We should have noise makers and such – since this is New Year’s Day… We should be celebrating just as they will do in a few weeks at Times Square in New York, the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh (where its Hogmanay, not New Year’s), or the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, which I gather is a major New Year’s hub. But that’s all in a few weeks. This week the Church celebrates the new Liturgical Year with the first Sunday of Advent. Hold the fireworks and noise makers for the other new year’s…
Liturgical New Years is the start of the church’s annual cycle of religious memories that defines Christian Tradition. Christians did not invent the idea of an annual cycle – we simply borrowed from our Jewish roots. Judaism has kept an annual cycle of feasts, festivals, holy days, and fast days since more or less forever.
Since our tradition is inherited from our Jewish Forebears, there are some fine points of the system that we would do well to consider.
The point in the Jewish cycle of holy days is not sentimental remembrance. It is not meant to call to mind past days of glory or sorrow, or to remember fondly those who have gone before. Remembering, in the Jewish tradition, is reliving the event. The term “re-membering” is complex and active – not sentimental. Keeping Passover or Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are not thought exercises. They are life exercises; living for ourselves events that are not trapped in the past but are part of life today.
In our Christian Calendar, the Season of Advent is not about looking forward to remembering the coming of Jesus into our lives… it is about preparing ourselves for Jesus to actually come into our lives. We are still in the business of welcoming Jesus into this world.
Welcoming Jesus is participating in a sacred mystery. God with us in human flesh is not something we can think our way into, any more than enjoying the beauty of a sunrise is something I can think my way into. We enter the mystery by participating in the mystery.
Not all mysteries work in the same way… If I enter the mystery of the sunrise by watching the light break over the hills to our east and the light spread across the pond outside this church, or if I ignore the sunrise, the sun rises just the same. The mystery may touch me, but I don’t touch the mystery.
But when God enters this world to dwell among us, the mystery not only touches us, but we touch the mystery. It is a marvelous and sacred thing, beyond my mind’s ability to comprehend, but offered freely to my body and soul. I just have to get my mind out of the way… and that is the work of Advent.
There is a Latin text drawn from the Monastic office of Matins for Christmas Day, O Magnum Mysterium, that contemplates what an astounding mystery and sacred thing it is that animals should see the Son of God and Savior of the World, lying in their manger. Just to be clear, that is in their food bowl… The importance of table fellowship in Jesus’ life cannot be overstated, and in Luke’s telling of the Gospel, Jesus first experience of table fellowship is not with us… it’s with the animals.
Our work, as we enter into Advent, is to make ourselves ready for Jesus. It would be nice to think that this was a wonderful and joyful task. But that is not the promise of Jesus. That is not the history that we are asked to remember in Advent.
Advent unfolds in four parts, hence the four candles in the Advent wreath. The wreath has a couple of functions. It counts down the Sundays, but it also keeps us on the current Sunday. It would be nice if we could just light all the candles and be on to Christmas, but the wreath calls on us to stay with the present. It is not yet time to think about “the birth…”
Our reading from Matthew gives us some things to focus on, and they are not comfortable things. Jesus has been on quite a tear talking about the end of the world as we know it and the coming of God’s Kingdom. When will it happen? Today’s reading starts with the answer: Nobody knows. And anybody who says they know is either misled, or just plain lying. God alone knows. Even Jesus does not know.
Why is this important at the beginning of Advent? We’re looking for the coming of Jesus, not the end of the world… Or are we? The coming of Jesus could be described as the beginning of the end, or as the end of the beginning… God coming into the world in physical form, in human flesh, changes everything. It is certainly the end of the beginning.
There is something very disturbing in portion of Matthew’s Gospel that we read. He has these various instances of people being taken away. Everyone in Noah’s time thought things were dandy, they were enjoying life right up until Noah got on the arc and closed the door… That was their first clue, and by then it was too late. They were swept away. There could be two men working in a field, or two women grinding flour, and one will be taken and one left. This is how it will be when God’s Kingdom comes. Yikes.
Some of our fellow Christians have become quite obsessed with this. A series of books and movies, collectively known as the “Left Behind” stories, are built on the assumption that at the Second Coming God will take away the chosen people and those that are left behind are going to suffer. If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, don’t bother…
One thing we don’t actually know is who is chosen and who is rejected – those who disappear or those who remain… Jesus doesn’t give us any clue about the fate of these people. The people not on the arc are washed away and those onboard are left behind – aren’t they? Who are the good guys?
I think Matthew is deliberately unclear about this aspect of the story because it doesn’t matter. The point is that we don’t know when its going to happen. If we did, we would know when to prepare. But as it is, we have to be ready at any moment.
What I want this time of year is a warm and fuzzy Christmas message. And that is not at all what we get in Matthew’s Gospel. “Jesus is coming at an hour we cannot anticipate” is hardly a good message for a Hallmark Card… “Stay up and worry, we don’t know when Christmas is coming…” Words you will not hear in any Christmas song.
But this time of remembering, this Advent, is not about happy, feel-good memories. It’s about living the events of the life of Jesus and those around him not as events from long ago, but here and now.
Jesus’s coming into the world was not an easy and blissful thing. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is born and almost immediately Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus have to flee to escape Herod’s slaughter. It’s one of the most horrific stories in the New Testament. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is born in a barn because nice people don’t have room in our lives to accommodate Mary and Joseph… Jesus is not really welcome in our world, not then and not now.
What to make of it all? Like the mystery of the sunrise, we don’t have to do our part to make it happen. We can completely ignore it – it will happen, nonetheless. And so, too, Jesus will come regardless of our readiness. But if we are going to be touched by the mystery, changed by the mystery, we must be awake and aware.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that the day is near, and knight is nearly over. We should put aside the works of darkness and live in the light, putting on Jesus our Lord.
American Politician and Civil Rights Leader John Lewis, also a friend of Desmond Tutu, encouraged folks to “not get lost in a sea of despair… Our struggle” he said “is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble”
That is what we are called to this first Sunday of Advent. Making ourselves ready for the Jesus means being ready to get into some good trouble with Jesus. The effect of touching and being touched by the mystery of the incarnation, of God with Us, is that we will be changed. The journey with Jesus is one of transformation. We will be transformed into citizens of God’s Kingdom where there is no darkness and where God’s justice flows like a mighty river to cover the entire world. When? God alone knows.