So here we are again, back at the beginning of the church year. We have completed the cycle of seasons and returned to the starting point. Everything about this beginning feels contradictory: nature’s seasons begin with spring, but here we are starting out as the natural world is packing up for the winter, putting away summer colors, hibernating and retreating as the days shorten and the light diminishes. Our calendars are getting tattered, down to the last page, as 2019 comes to a close, while we turn to the first pages of our hymnals and lectionary guides. And as we celebrate the beginning of the festive season, Scripture points us to last things, to the second coming and the end times. It’s confusing and disorienting and counter-cultural.
So, Happy Advent! If you are feeling confused and disoriented and counter-cultural, that’s exactly where you are meant to be.
Advent begins in the darkest season of the year. Even in San Diego we have some gloomy days; sunrise comes a little later each day and sunset a little earlier. We have three weeks to go until the solstice, when the earth will shift and the light will start to strengthen. I am confident about this, because the earth herself makes this promise. Every religion begins with the earth’s promise, that the light will return, that new life will ultimately spring up, even in the darkest days, even in the midst of death. And this is the time of year when we most need to hear that promise. It is a promise that underlies the promise of Scripture: light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Today we ask God to give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. We are to awaken from any stupor of despair and be alert to the hope of our faith. The first Sunday of Advent is our spiritual alarm clock: Ring, ring! Wake up! It’s time to move, to make a change, to prepare for the new thing that is coming!
These end-times passages in the Gospels are jarring. Most of us don’t want to think about people, especially loved ones, being left behind or excluded. We don’t want to imagine an apocalyptic scene. If the God we know is a God of love and forgiveness, how can Jesus be so judgmental? In the euphoric anxiety of this busy season, why are we subjected to this grim warning? It’s hardly comforting to read of Jesus saying that even he doesn’t know when these things will happen. Maybe we can look beyond the doom and gloom and find the promise, because there is always a promise. The promise of the Gospel is that God is present to us in the here and now. We don’t have to wait for Kingdom life, we can grasp it today.
I am a creature of habit. I like a routine, I like to be able to do certain things on autopilot. Some days I get up, make the cat’s breakfast and my own, and get ready for work, and an hour later I can’t remember if I brushed my teeth, because it’s so routine. These last few months, since construction began and we moved into our temporary offices, all the cathedral staff have had to switch off our autopilots. Every time I leave my office, I have to stop and think: how will I get there from here today? It’s surprisingly tiring, but it’s also a reminder to live fully in the now, to wake up.
Autopilot is a great coping mechanism. Human beings have the capacity to adapt to the most distressing circumstances. Autopilot gets us through when life feels too hard. When we hear of yet another mass shooting we start to refer to it as “yet another mass shooting”, relegating what should be a shattering tragedy to just one in a series. This kind of diminishment of trauma helps us deal with it.
When I was a child in Northern Ireland I got used to stopping at the entrance to a shop and opening my shopping bags for inspection. It was something I did automatically, not even pausing in conversation, because if I had really thought about the implication – that anyone entering the store might be carrying a bomb – I wouldn’t have been able to function. But here’s the problem with autopilot. When we get really good at it, we start to die inside. We start to lose the capacity for pain, and without the possibility of pain, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity for love. The God of love wants us to be fully awake, to open our hearts to the pain of the world, not so that we will be traumatized – suffering is never what God wants for us – but so that we will be able to enter into the fullness of life, receiving, appreciating, and sharing the beauty of creation, the sacredness of relationship, and the overwhelming joy of closeness with God. This is what Advent is calling us to.
We create routines to make life easier, but we all know that our routines can be interrupted and our lives changed radically an instant. On this international AIDS day I think of the call from a doctor that can change a life, of the unwelcome news that a new strain of AIDS has just been identified. I think of the millions of lives, families, relationships, that have been shattered by a diagnosis or an accident. I think of the family whose wage-earner is picked up by immigration enforcement on his way to work. For some things there is no good time and no way to prepare.
Jesus warns us that we may be similarly unprepared for God to come into our lives and turn them upside down. In the midst of our daily activities, God is seeking us out, inviting us to changed hearts and changed lives. Advent is our annual opportunity to prepare for this change. When is the right time for Jesus to come into our world, into our lives? His first coming was into a world of poverty, violence, and oppression. Not much has changed for most of the world over 2000 years. Today his coming is needed as much as ever. And so we are invited, this Advent, to wake up to the possibility of Emmanuel, God with us, to live into the promise that the light of Christ will grow in our world, and to walk through these dark times trusting in the light of the Lord.
December 1, 2019
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges