First Sunday in Advent
So, today is the first Sunday of Advent, when we mark the beginning of a new liturgical year. And during the week, as I was reflecting on this, I started thinking about how as children we have so many “beginnings”. For children, everything is “new.” Conversely, though, I also then started thinking about how the older we get, the more “endings” there seem to be. At first, I thought this was a pretty depressing realization to start off the holiday season. But then I started looking more closely at our readings for today.
The picture of life and of the world that these readings paint for are at the same time dark and foreboding and also bright and hopeful. The day of the Lord, we are taught to understand, is to be both one of judgment, but also one of healing. Whether or not you believe in the whole concept of an end times, the picture that these readings paint of an ultimate “ending” is both a terrifying and an exciting vision. Because while these readings do suggest some kind of final judgment and end of the world, they also speak very hopefully about an end to things like suffering and injustice, and a beginning of a time of eternal joy and love.
So, as I often do when I’m faced with life questions, this morning I’m wondering what do these readings say to us about our own lives today? What do they say about the beginnings and the endings in our lives? And in the particular case of where we are today, what do they say about our preparations for the coming of Christ into our lives?
Well, the vision we’re given this morning of the coming of Christ at first doesn’t seem to fit with the vision of Christmas most of us have of the meek, gentle, child lying in a manger. Jesus coming to judge the earth seems worlds away from the vision of Mary and Joseph huddled in a stable. And it certainly has no connection with the mad rush to buy everything we can before December 25th. But, in fact, these readings are relevant and they do have a lot to say about how we look at beginnings and endings.
We’ve all experienced events that worry us. Many of us have personal events in our lives right now that are worrying us. And even if your own life is running smoothly, wars, terrorism and just the general sense of constant conflict and lack of civility in our public discord over these past couple of years have supplied reason enough for anyone to find things to worry about. Frankly, even if this were not the case, I think we would find something to worry about anyway. I don’t know why it is, but we humans as a whole seem to be creatures with a great deal of anxiety in our hearts. I’ve often looked at our pet cats Oliver & Mr. T lying by the fireplace with not too little envy as I wonder how blissfully peaceful the world must be for them.
Part of being human seems to mean having a lot to worry about. In and of itself, that may not be a bad thing, but what scares me is how evil in this world can feed on worry. “Worry” doesn’t worry me. What evil can do with worry worries me. Worrying can take away hope. Worrying can hang a veil over joy. Worrying can infect our lives and cause us to lose sight of what God, what Jesus, what our faith says about life and the world and the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives. Because sometimes that worry, that anxiety, that overwhelming fear, can cause us to forget that in the face of evil, Jesus says, “look up!” “Hold your head high.” “Look to the future while giving thanks for the wonder of every moment of life.” “My father in heaven loves you and will not abandon you.” You see, as we get older, I think it is worry that makes us see only endings and makes us overlook or even ignore the beginnings that are always happening in our lives.
The good news in our Gospel today is that, despite the fact that there is always going to be a lot to worry about, in spite of the fact that if we really want to look for it, we can always find endings in our lives, still, Jesus tells us that in all situations, we should stand and lift our heads high because God has promised us a new beginning. No less than Jesus himself is our new beginning—our redemption—, and at this time of year, we always remind ourselves of that fact. Because it is precisely when things look most frightening that we feel closest to God. It is when we are the most frightened, the most worried, the most challenged by what we perceive to be the endings in our lives, that God is able to do new things and show us the new beginnings in our lives. And that is also how we comprehend the true meaning of Advent.
During this short 4-week season of the Church Year, we are challenged to live as people who expect God to be near to us – always — , and to live as people who believe that God is always doing something new. In Advent, we are challenged to live as if we expect Christ to come into our lives in a new way yet again.
Now, what does that mean? It means that in Advent, we are called to learn to see the worries in our lives not as signs of things that are ultimately wrong with us or with the world, but as moments of potential. In Advent, we are to look in a new way on the people and situations that trouble us and see them as opportunities for God to bring renewal to someone’s life (perhaps our own). In Advent, we are to look at the dark skies and the dark places, and yes, the “endings” in our lives not as times to be feared, but as moments of waiting and anticipation for the new thing that God is about to reveal to us. In Advent, we are given the opportunity to not be bound by our fears, but to, instead, reach through our fears and to reach instead for the hope of God’s promises.
And what does this all mean from a practical perspective? It means that painful relationships can be made whole, not by our will or power, but by God’s. It means that lost hope can be restored—not by our “self-help” but by God’s grace. It means that anger and bitterness can be buried—not by our own selfless acts, but by God’s ultimate act of giving up his only son for our sake. Because it is God who chose, through Christ, to draw near to us. Because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we can look at painful, scary situations in a new way and offer them up to God. Because God has promised to be near to us, so that we might know moments of redemption, moments when we are made more whole, moments when we begin to grasp the wonder of life outside of just the life that we experience, moments when we see that God is always making things new.
As we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ again this Advent, let us also see and know that God wants to transform and make new even the most impossible situations in our lives. Even the endings we think we cannot recover from. To free us from our greatest fears and from the work of evil in the world. And let us pray that as God draws near to us again this year, we might be given the strength to see others in our lives, and in everyone’s life, in a new way. For Christ is coming into the world. And in the promise of that new beginning, we can rejoice . . . again. Happy Advent.