Lessons for Advent 1B: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and, Mark 13:24-37.
In today’s lessons, there is no anticipation of the sweet infant – meek and mild or of an intrepid young mother; nor is there yet talk of angelic choirs, dirty shepherds, or star-filled nights. It doesn’t yet sound like Christmas in our biblical narratives! And so it probably shouldn’t for we are just now in Advent, the time of holy longing and waiting and anticipation. But still, our gospel lesson today slaps us with uncertainty and dread – the darkening of the sun and the moon, and the stars falling from the sky. We are left today hearing of the powers in the heavens shaken. For those of us in 2020 longing for the lovely nativity story of Luke and Matthew, we are just going to have to wait a little longer. Today we are struck by the Apocalypse!
We are a generation, having been formed about the end times by the popular imagination of The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series, with images of the end times that are worrisome. In recent popular theology and Christian application, fears of the end times and Apocalyptic visions have been manipulated into powerful right-wing, fringe political movements, and a general callousness regarding the planet, the poor, and peace. And since Christianity, in general, is perhaps more attracted to the Beatitudes and Jesus’ prophetic social vision, Apocalyptic visions of the end are disturbing and uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, consideration of the signs of the times and what it meant to wait for the end has been a part of the ethos of Advent from its inception. Spiritual writers, theologians, and preachers have long seen the poetic interplay between Jesus’ coming in flesh with the anticipation of a second coming. Were these two distinct events, separated in time? Was the first coming an anticipation of the second? …a prefigurement? Or perhaps the first was just the beginning of the second? What does “end” mean? How does Christmas relate to the wild depictions of cosmic desolation?
The problem with our understanding of the “end-times” and of the Apocalyptic visions, as I see it, comes about because of our conception of time. In the West, we see time as strictly linear, conceiving in terms of beginning, middle, and end. There is an anticipation, in other words, of “the end of the world-as-we-know it” (to quote the 80 rock band REM). It is the same striking universal devastation that we read into the Mayan calendar (the end of which was supposed to be in 2012). It’s the ubiquitous prophecy of Kim Clement who insists the world will end next year because Donald Trump wasn’t reelected. It is about history ceasing to be.
But the biblical texts that we read in Advent – the Apocalyptic visions – speak to a different, more mystical understanding of time. Time, rather than linear, is seen as “opportune” or “right.” Indeed, rather than a quantitative measure (ie. linear), time is held as qualitative – a measure of one’s story and the context of one’s being. We might think about it like this: Where do the divisions of past, present, and future really come? When does the present slip to the past? When does the future arrive? When is the present present? Time, conceived in this way, is much more of a spiritual quest.
Perhaps if we might enter Advent with this perspective of time, the apocalyptic texts might speak with a renewed voice. The words of the liturgical prayer – Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. – weekly illustrates the mystery of God’s redemptive time. And the language of the book of Revelation speaks to us of the God “who is and who was and who is to come.” The point is: The Apocalyptic vision is a grace-filled dance in which the end-times are all times and all times are the end-times. This is the spirit through which we walk through Advent. Jesus has been born yet we still wait. Christ has already come; Christ will return.
This notion of Apocalyptic time finds its place throughout the gospel according to Mark as we encounter the power of God at loose in the world. Notice that the gospel according to Mark doesn’t begin with angelic announcements and birth narratives, nor does it start with lengthy genealogies or theological poetics. Instead, the gospel according to Mark begins with the straightforward announcement of the long-awaited Messiah, who is empowered to proclaim the reign of God and draw others to repentance and faith. In the first scene with Jesus, at the baptism, the gospel according to Mark has the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending. The power of God is set loose in the world. At the end of the Markan narrative, after Jesus had “breathed his last” and was “laid in the tomb,” Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome go to the tomb to anoint the body. When they arrive at the tomb, it is then they are told,
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”Mark 16:6-7
Again the power of God God is set loose in the world.
In these Advent days, we would do well to remember that the power of God is already set loose in the world – in the midst of pandemics, in the already and not yet of the divine drama in our lives, and the struggle for racial, gender, environmental, and sexual justice. The power of God is set loose in the here and now, and ours to place our hope in that place. To keep watch. To be present. To pay attention to the places God is being born into our world.
This Advent will likely be different for us. The traditions that have shaped these days for us will probably not look exactly the same as in years past. While some normalcy would definitely be appreciated, the change that is upon us might be used for good. This just might be the opportunity we need to keep watch for God – to experience connections in isolation, to glimpse light in the darkness, to feel the tendrils of hope in our weariness, and to locate signs of peace in the chaos, love in the apparent division, and joy in the many sorrows. Advent is inviting us to be attentive to such glimmers and tendrils and signs and gestures.
One of the great paradoxes of the Christian journey is that we live in the “already” and the “not yet.” In our Advent waiting, we proclaim that God has come into the world and is actively at work in the world, but God hasn’t finished. So Keep watch. Be present. Pay attention. Advent invites us to keep watch for God—looking for Christ in the people we cross paths with and Zoom with. We are invited to see with hope-filled eyes that allow us to join in a present-tense advent, focused on being awake to God in the world. A present tense advent not only expects God’s arrival but assumes God’s ongoing presence in the here and now. In the midst of all of our preparations and our uncertainties, maybe we can keep watch for God, so that we might recognize Jesus, being born into a world in great need of healing and hope.
As an extra:
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule foreve—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.Boesak, Alan. “Advent Credo.” Walking on Thorns (Eerdmans, 2004).