My Dear Parishioners:
On the first Sunday of Advent, the scripture readings do not turn us towards the warmth of Christmas or the wonders of the season. We aren’t invited to follow Mary’s path into Bethlehem, or share in the joy of a new babe. We don’t see shepherds on the hillside, or hear the sounds of angel choirs, singing God’s praise. No. On the first Sunday of Advent, we are put on notice.. We are given the scriptural equivalent of a slap upside the head.
We are told that the familiar faces of the sun, the moon and the stars will bear signs. Nations will be “in dismay”. People will die of fright… become anxious… perplexed… and then caught by surprise like a trap.
Hey, Welcome Home in Advent! For anyone taking a tentative step back to Church or visiting for the first time, these readings may sound like an odd homecoming speech. And it’s true, the first week of Advent doesn’t exactly invite us in for coffee and donuts. It invites us into uncertainty, even pain and upset. It invites us to see that God’s plan does not reach its peak in the birth of Jesus, or even with his death and resurrection, but with His second coming in glory.
Advent is a shape-shifter; a time-bender that looks backward and then forward, challenging us to embrace the tensions that define our faith. Advent reminds us that we carry within us the dying and rising of a Lord who will come, who has come, who walks with us still who will come again in glory.
Advent teaches us that our concept of “time” – linear, straightforward, marching obediently through past, present and future—is not necessarily God’s time. The scripture we read during Advent points us to another, more mysterious kind of time— time that exists in the divine being of God.
This is time big enough to explode galaxies into life. Time intimate enough to mark the milestones of a child’s growth. This is Time eternal and immediate; beginning and end, already and not yet. It is God’s redemptive Time.
Without Advent— without these strange and wonderful passages reminding us to be vigilant, to be aware; to stand and raise our heads and know that our redemption is at hand; to live in fearful times without being afraid; to see past, present and future through new eyes—Without this, the power and wonder of Christmas could be reduced to a sentimental story of a baby and a crowded inn. Near the beginning of his Christmas poem, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden says, “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.” And there it is.
When you are on the brink of death – from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or calamity or oppression or depression or burnout or whatever – when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of the miraculous, of salvation, for that which is merely possible cannot save.
And that is what the gospel offers – an impossible possibility, a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true, a story that stretches beyond and encompasses all our stories so as to give them meaning, integrity, and purpose.
So let’s face it: this week’s passage is peculiar and hard and odd and wonderful because it announces to us a promise that itself is peculiar and hard and odd and wonderful, a promise that is big enough to save us.
If we open ourselves up to the people and images that shape this season, we may find that Advent is something more than we ever imagined— something different— something a little unexpected, something bright and sharp and wonderful. A perfect time to celebrate coming home— Something worth searching for and waiting for and yearning over and ultimately embracing, regardless of our fears and sins and whatever path that brought us here.
That something is a promise big enough to save us.
Blessings, Fr. John