Br. Robert Magliula, OHC
Advent 1 B, Sunday, November 30, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
|The ambo and Advent wreath in the monastery church - 2013|
On this first Sunday of Advent, the Church begins its telling of the Christian story once again. It begins with the prayer of the prophet Isaiah that is both a lament and a plea. He portrays a God in history that does awesome deeds, which often surprise God’s people. Yet the people have forgotten to call upon God. Isaiah’s words remind them and us that God is and has been faithful and present. Waiting with hope, Isaiah prays that God will be visible in their midst again.
Beginning Advent with this prayer jolts us out of ordinary time with the invasive news that it’s time to think about fresh possibilities for deliverance, conversion, and wholeness. But one cannot get there without becoming vulnerable along the way. It’s so easy to be seduced away from this season by the superficial trappings of Christmas, which already surround us. Cards portraying spotless and cheerful travelers and pristine stables assure us of automatic peace and joy, assuming that we are open and ready to receive it. The journey to Bethlehem is not a smooth, clean, and painless one. To reach the cave of the Nativity, we enter first through what the desert elders called the cave of our own hearts. It is there that we meet the Christ, only after we have met ourselves. It’s a trip we take in stages, with the temptation to rest, at some pleasant oasis on the way, far from the hard and dirty work of traveling in a wilderness.
Our humanity is a messy business, far more complex than we’d like to admit. This season magic childhood memories enter into play. Every year my brothers and I would obsess on the things that would make our lives complete. All we had to do was ask for it and show up to collect them under the tree on Christmas morning. We had no doubt that our parents would make our dreams come true. They were reliable like that. It never dawned on us what sacrifices they made to satisfy those desires----which in retrospect were hardly deep. Our society not only encourages, but also heavily promotes that immature, self-centered mentality at this time of year with an obsessive focus on the receiver, not the giver. It’s appropriate for a child, but not an adult.
If we are to benefit from Advent in any way, it must be a time to be attentive daily to the presence of God already among us. Israel’s longing is ours. Like Israel we wait, want, and expect to see the face of God. Like them we also take our detours on the way to our deepest desire, which is for God. And as with Israel, God is passionately patient with us.
Advent eventually takes us to Bethlehem, but it begins by traversing the cosmos. In the very beginning of the story, we are given a glimpse of its ending. This season has always held in tension God’s judgment and God’s promise. The advent wreathe itself is like a ticking clock, reminding us of the time we have left to wake up, pay attention, and prepare.
The Gospel, which is a portion of what is often called “the little apocalypse,” puts us in the presence of the adult Jesus offering both prophetic judgment and prophetic comfort. Hearing him anticipate the end times when heaven will literally quake and stars will begin to fall out of the sky is intended to shock us into wakefulness. Christ does not come without us risking conversion and change. Christ’s coming disrupts business as usual. Like Mary and Joseph we are driven from our comfort zones, our carefully laid plans. More often than not, a crisis can be a grace-filled event, as it was with them, an opening for a new coming of Christ into our lives.
It can seem strange, at first, to begin our anticipation of the birth of Jesus by being exhorted to wait for his coming again. In one important respect, however, it is entirely fitting, because it places us squarely with those who awaited the birth of the Messiah. Neither those who awaited the first coming of the Messiah, nor those of us who now await his return know the day or hour of his arrival. There was and is a need to live in a continual state of watchfulness. By anticipating the return of the Son of Man here, at the start of Advent, we wait in the same way as our ancestors did for the Christ. We also join them in hearing---and needing---the same exhortation to be watchful and to keep awake. As at Bethlehem, God is always showing up in unlikely, even in unpromising places.
Waiting for Christ to come, or to come again, requires an expectant watchfulness, an active not a passive waiting. Active waiting is full of expectation, of anticipation. It implies a kind of readiness to receive, to be open to what’s coming, even when we can’t imagine or engineer what it will look like. That’s the kind of waiting Jesus had in mind when he told his followers, “Beware, keep alert: for you do not know when the time will come.”
It’s clear that Jesus doesn’t expect us to predict that time. Rather, he is urging us to live as if his return is just around the corner. Living between two advents, we can’t forget that he came in the first place. There is an “already and not yet” quality to the divine drama in which we live. Already Jesus has established the means through which we are drawn into relationship with God, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God. Already the realm of God is evident, but not yet is that realm fully established.
Advent is intended to be a time of new hope and new birth when the Christ is ultimately born into our hearts. We who have to live in the “already” and “not yet,” summon the courage and strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily only by keeping awake and alert, by living our lives in accord with the one who has already come, died, and been raised. God is not found in distant glory but in the truth of our lives here, today. God is never far away, but with us, indwelling on our side, and for us, more than we are for ourselves. So we do not lose heart; rather we live with our hearts broken open so that compassion and God’s reckless love can find a way into our hearts, and through us, into the heart of the world. In so doing, not only will we be prepared to live in the promised realm of God when it comes, but we may experience, even now, some of what life in the realm will be like. +Amen.