Advent 1, Year B
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation – T. S. Eliot.
Advent. The coming. The new church year. A season that acknowledges mystery and longing and emptiness and lonely nights. The time the church bids us to seek a further union, a deeper communion – even through, especially through, the cold and desolation of the world. Advent is a juncture understood more fully in quiet contemplation than in the chatter of life. Advent demands a vivid awareness more potently provoked by imagery than by the most scholarly texts of erudite analysis. It is a time of pregnant yearning, of urgent anticipation surpassing the power of explanation – it must be lived.
So why, as I pondered the lessons for today, powerful in their ability to evoke a visceral response – – from Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” and from Mark, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” – – Why as I pondered these emotionally charged words did decidedly soulless phrases like “imminent eschatology” and “participatory eschatology” repeatedly invade my thoughts – like a tuneless, rhythmless song stuck in my head?
The original intended beneficiaries of the Gospel of Mark had a problem. They had rather a lot of them actually – surviving the persecution of Nero not least among them. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted to be the oldest of the Gospels, probably written about 66 AD (CE). Aside from the issue of avoiding the unhealthy attention of Nero, these early Christians had another, more theological problem. For many, if not for most, Jesus seemed to be running a little late. They had waited these 30+ years since Jesus’s death with great faith and not inconsiderable patience for the second coming. They held an imminent eschatology – they believed that Jesus was going to come and the world was going to end imminently. Except that it hadn’t. Yet.
In response to the prolonged delay many began to think perhaps there had been a misunderstanding, and that actually Jesus’s return wasn’t imminent, but rather would mark the culmination of all world events – a future eschatology.
The Gospel of Mark hovers between the two worlds. Some verses seem to suggest an apocalypse the day after tomorrow would not be an unreasonable expectation; other verses shift the end times comfortably down the road of time. The Gospel of Mark be-bops between the positions practically on a verse by verse basis. Scholars suggest the author was working from two different sources as he penned his work. Unable to make up his mind between the two options, he wove them together into a single narrative.
Maybe the author of Mark was a hopeless flip-flopper as this suggests. Or maybe he took pains to ensure that the time and the place in which we would meet our God in a new way was simply not the point. “Keep awake!” says Jesus. “You do not know when the time will come.” What if?… What if Jesus calls his followers to help shape the Kingdom of God here, now, tomorrow, always – participatory eschatology.
Advent lasts 4 short weeks. What would you do if you somehow knew you had only 4 weeks left to live? Pray more? Laugh more? Give more? Mend broken relationships? Forgive that long-nursed insult? Create a legacy?
Mary Anderson in the Christian Century says, “By answering yes to one or more of these possibilities, we indicate that in our last days we would be better stewards of all the things God has given us in this life — better than we are now. In the intensity of last days, we would live better, be better. We would be more generous, more focused on the most important things in life. The question is: Why do we need to be under threat of death to be better stewards?” “Keep awake!”
One preacher tells this story (John Sumwalt, Midrash, private communication): The preacher’s friend Herb jogged to the corner store almost every day, and had gotten to know the storekeeper. One day the storekeeper was staring out the window, tears in his eyes. Herb asked him what was wrong. “Herb, do you see that bench over there?”
Herb nodded. “There’s an old woman who comes there about this time every day, day after day. She sits. She knits. She waits. Buses come and go. She never gets on a bus. She never seems to know the people getting off. She knits and she waits. We shared some coffee and conversation the other day. I found out her son is in the navy. She last saw him two years ago when he left town on one of those buses. He’s married now, and has a baby girl.
She has never met her daughter-in-law or seen her grandchild. They’re the only family she has. She told me, ‘It helps to come here and wait. I pray for them, knit little things for the baby, and I imagine them in their apartment on the base. They are saving money to come home on the bus next Christmas. I can’t wait to see them.’”
The shopkeeper took a deep breath and said, “I looked out there just now, and there they were getting off the bus. You should have seen the look on her face when they fell into her arms and when she laid eyes on her little granddaughter for the first time. It was the nearest thing to pure joy that I ever hope to see. I’ll never forget that look for as long as I live.”
Herb jogged back to the store the next day. The shopkeeper was in his usual place behind the counter. Before he could say anything, Herb asked, “You sent her son the money for the bus tickets, didn’t you?” The shopkeeper looked back with eyes full of love and a smile that was the nearest thing to complete joy that Herb had ever seen and said, “Yes. I’ll never forget that look for as long as I live.”
Keep awake. “Let yourself fall open to Advent, to anticipation, to the belief that what is empty will be filled, what is broken will be repaired, and what is lost can always be found, no matter how many times it’s been lost.” (Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way)
Thy Kingdom come, Lord
Thy will be done.