The Reverend John Allison, Celebrant
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
November 29, 2020
“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”
These words from our Psalm for the day have been very present to me this week as I’ve reflected on our scriptures for this first Sunday of Advent, scriptures that are not so different from the apocalyptic readings of the last few Sundays that ended with our celebration of Christ the King and the coming sovereignty of God’s kingdom on earth. Indeed, our readings on this first Sunday of Advent speak to a people who are desperate for God’s presence. We hear it from the psalmist, as well as in the words of Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence. . . .”
Written during a time of great oppression and turmoil, just after the conquest of Israel by the Babylonians, this passage reflects feelings that are with us to this day. We hurt. Bad things happen that seem to make no sense, whether it be a raging pandemic, or natural disasters that take countless lives or serious illness or loss of life, we long for some sense of meaning, some sense of peace, of God’s presence.
This longing was present as well for the early Christian community to whom Mark was writing. For Mark’s readers, Jesus’s depiction of the end times and his imminent return would have represented hope amidst increasing persecution by the Roman authorities. Christ’s return, the final revelation of God’s Kingdom, is that point toward which we are all journeying. That was the feast we celebrated last week as Christ the King and in that end we are pointed to our beginning. “In my end is my beginning," as T.S. Eliot reminds us in his Four Quartets. We begin that journey today from the single small flame of hope represented in the Advent Candle. It points us to what the great theologian St. Bernard of Clairvaux called the first of the three advents of Christ—the Incarnation, the focus of this season of Advent, God taking on human flesh and entering the world in the person of Jesus. Over the weeks that follow the light will grow against the darkness and it is in that growing light that we can begin to glimpse the gifts that God has given us in Jesus. In that growing light we can begin to see God’s promise to us in the coming of the baby Jesus. It’s a very different coming than the triumphant Christ returning to judge the world, what St. Bernard named as the third advent of Christ.
In the baby Jesus, much like the suffering servant to whom the Book of the Prophet Isaiah points, we have a God who is like us in our weakness, in our suffering. God with us—Emmanuel. The Incarnation to which we look is not about a king coming to reclaim his throne in great glory but a tender, vulnerable child born in a stable amidst the dust and muck of the world.
It’s that tenderness, that vulnerability that is so easily forgotten, so easily trampled in our busy, overstuffed world. Even in the rush toward Christmas as it is enacted in the secular world, in the decorations that go up these days even before Thanksgiving in some cases, in the urge toward shopping frenzy and door-buster bargains, the busyness of the season seldom points to the coming Christ child. What might it mean for us to tend to the weakness and fragility of the baby Jesus? What might it look like for us to care for the most vulnerable of our world? What might it mean for us open our hearts to claim our own vulnerability, our own weakness? Which brings me to what St. Bernard named as the second advent of Christ: his coming into our hearts. This happens most formally in the Church through the sacrament of Baptism and is renewed each time we step to this table and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. But Christ lives in our hearts always and, just as it’s easy for much of the world in the busyness of the season to forget the Christ Child, we often forget and crowd our hearts with much that runs counter to God’s love for us.
This past week The New York Times published an opinion piece by Pope Francis entitled, “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts.” The “crisis” of the title refers to the pandemic and the takeaway of the article is that we must allow ourselves to be touched by others’ pain, that we allow ourselves to feel with others, to have compassion. Of course, we are supposed to have compassion; we know that, but it’s not always so easy. We protect ourselves. We become fearful. We look away. Or sometimes, we allow ourselves to be blind. At one point, Francis quotes the German poet and novelist, Friedrich Holderlin, saying, “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” There is much danger in the world, much that threatens us as individuals, as citizens, even as Christians. Sometimes it is easier to look away, but as followers of Christ, as watchers for his coming, that is not our call. We are saved when we open our hearts to vulnerability, to trust, to faith. "To come out of this crisis better,” Francis says, “we have to recover the knowledge that as a people we have a shared destination.” Our shared destination, our end, is in Christ.
Our Gospel concludes today with Jesus saying, “Keep awake.” But it’s hard to keep awake when we are surrounded by darkness, when the light is only a tiny point easily lost in our wavering focus. And so we must be vigilant. We must be intentional in directing our gaze, holding our focus. We must prepare. We must begin clearing out the dusty, cluttered stable of our heart so that the baby Jesus can be born there. For me, that means reinvigorating my practices as a Christian. And so I ask you to consider, what are the practices of your faith that sustain you? What are the practices that keep you awake to the gifts God has given you in Christ? Is it prayer? Fasting? Daily reading and study of scripture? Some other private devotion? What empowers you to open your heart?
Advent is a time to cultivate these practices, a time to wake up and reorient ourselves to that end point toward which God is continually calling us all. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” God has given us tools for the journey but it is incumbent on us to use them, to cultivate our various gifts so that we can be present to him when he arrives.
I was up very early this morning, before sunrise, and I stood at our living room window to look out at the river. It was dark, so dark that I couldn’t see anything but my own reflection. These first days of Advent are like that. The darkness is deep and we can’t always see past ourselves. And yet, the light will come, slowly, gradually, but surely. That’s God’s promise. Our task, our call, is to keep awake. Give thanks and stay awake. Amen.