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The Strange Season

December 2, 2013

“The Strange Season” Matthew 24:32-44, Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14 © 12.1.13 Advent 1A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Advent is a strange season. It feels confused, and it’s definitely confusing, as if it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Are we anticipating the coming of the Lord at the end of everything, perhaps with a little fear and trembling or are we eagerly anticipating the Savior’s birth, putting ourselves in the place of hopeful prophets and longing peoples from centuries ago? Is the appropriate clothing sackcloth and a rough purple sash or a little black party dress and a Santa Claus tie? Are we repenting or reveling, rejoicing or regretting? Advent seems to be a season put together by a Presbyterian (USA) task group or something they would do in Washington, all compromise and inclusion, with nobody really happy or quite sure what’s been accomplished or what it means.

And in a way, that’s what happened way back in the day. Advent as we know it now is a relatively late invention of the Church, dating only to the late 1100s. Before then, the country and the city did different things.

In the wild and untamed lands of northern and western Europe in the fourth century AD, preachers emphasized penitence in preparation for the baptismal celebration that would be happening on January 6, Epiphany. This was an influence of the Eastern church, whose message was carried through the maritime commerce in the Mediterranean. For those already converted, spiritual discipline was the focus. For those to be baptized, intensive instruction, known as catechesis, was given. This period eventually took on the forty day scheme of Lent, less Saturdays and Sundays. The focus was on eschatology, that is, the last things, specifically being prepared for the Second Coming of Christ as judge. Advent was thus the end of the church year. It wasn’t until the sixth century that a preparation for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem was added in these regions. That lasted from November 11 to Christmas Eve. The focus on penitence still remained.

However, in the city of Rome, the church headquarters, the situation was different. There is no record of an Advent celebration there until the sixth century. Epiphany was not a time for baptism in Rome, so no penitence was emphasized. Instead, Advent was preparation for Christmas.

Pope Gregory (590-604) seems to have started the observance in Rome by establishing four Advent masses on Sundays and three “Ember Day” masses that used Advent themes. Ember Days were three-day periods once a quarter for fasting and prayer.

Despite being associated with fasting, though, the spirit of celebration remained in the Roman Advent. Joy prevailed. By the eighth century, the practices of the two regions began to converge. No doubt this happened through trade, contact of different cultures, and travel, besides the yearning for something fresh in liturgy.

In the twelfth century, the season was adorned with white and gold and praise anthems were sung throughout. This was early on in the century, though. By the end, the colors were black or something equally somber and there was no festivity.

We still struggle with the twin themes today. Understanding Advent as a time of preparation for the Second Coming is difficult. As someone has summed up, Advent is a “‘season under stress,’” “‘always out-of-step,” a “‘schismatic season….caught in the collision of conflicting interpretations and practices” (Richard C. Hoefler, quoted in The Services of the Christian Year, Robert E. Webber, ed.: 108).

Advent is a strange season, and we are oddballs in the culture if we attempt to let it have its own character and observe it with integrity. We are going against the predominant practice and mood of these days before Christmas if we emphasize penitence even a bit. The focus is mostly on partying, buying, and joy. Advent invites us to pause in the frenzy and wait.

And that makes things hard on us. Episcopal priest Catherine Caimano observes: “We want to put on the mantle of joy in this season, not the sackcloth and ashes of the penitent. We want no guilt with the glitter of windows and wrappings, trimmings and trees.

“And this is surely why Advent is the hardest of times for faithful Christians, as we are exhorted to hold off on the celebrating for four more weeks, to embrace the darkness and the silence and the cold before we can put on the carols and presents and golden glow of the one Christian holiday that is most firmly embraced by all of the world.

“Why should we put on the color of solemnity just as everyone else is putting on the most festive dress of the year?”

It’s difficult to wait, to “hold off,” as Mother Caimano put it. When we have to wait, that usually means somebody or something else is in control. We’re queued up, the tenth caller, waiting for help with an Internet problem or a credit card question. We’re anxiously sitting in a bad chair while the TV blares at the repair shop, with our car up on the rack. We keep looking at our phones, wondering when word about a surgery or a call-back from an interview is going to come.

And in our nanosecond tech culture, when we expect downloads to be almost instantaneous and news to be up-to-the-minute, when “fast is better,” and we “tech the halls,” we are conditioned not to wait for anything. Old saws like “anything worth having is worth waiting for” seem like so much nonsense to many. Delayed gratification? Forget it! I want it now, even if I have to make minimum payments on my Visa for months and months. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot” (quoted in Columbia Seminary Vantage, Fall 2103: 59). He made that observation in the 1930s or 1940s. How much truer is it today?

If indeed, we waited in this season as those with nothing to do, bored or anxious or both, I’m sure you would join me in wanting to get through Advent as quickly as possible. But our waiting is not that sort. Instead, we might call it “active waiting.” We don’t drop everything and head for a mountainside till Jesus picks us up. We don’t scan the horizon, fretting about tomorrow while there’s work to be done today. Advent waiting is continuing to do what we do, but in a different spirit, with an awareness that maybe we didn’t have before. The spiritual writer Suzanne Guthrie put it this way: “The Church year begins with the ending of time itself. The unfolding of this vision of the end of time is meant to shake you awake, toward repentance and conversion, changing, turning you around so that you might be fit to bear Love. Contemplating the end of time itself, opens a new kind of time. Now it is time to enter Sacred Time.

“Something New begins. And to perceive it, the church asks you to enter into another dimension, to take the path diverging off chronological time, to enter the series of sacred events leading toward the birth, the teaching, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and then, the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit sends you out into the suffering world to be the loving Kingdom. And then, you walk in two kinds of time in the same world. Because the sacred world is all about helping to fulfill the holiness of the temporal one” (http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/advent1a.html).

Advent paradoxically calls us to do something in this world, right now, precisely because we are waiting for a Savior who is coming, but is also present. We become Christ to our neighbors; we incarnate every day the One who was born in Bethlehem and will come again one day we know not when to judge the nations. We wear Jesus, to paraphrase Paul. To be a disciple in the spirit of this season is to enter into the world and our daily lives fully and faithfully. We need not, and we don’t, leave our jobs or our school or our families to prepare for the coming of Christ. The fault of Noah’s generation, says Jesus, was not their sinfulness, but their lack of mindfulness. They just kept on with their routines as if there were no other reality, nothing different was ever going to happen to them, no inconvenience or crisis would ever interrupt their ordered lives. But we live our lives knowing that one day our Lord will return. And the best way to be ready is to just keep on doing what we’re doing in a way that glorifies him, that will make him proud and welcome when he comes. Maybe a good analogy is the business owner who always has the lobby nice and neat and the fridge stocked with cold drinks, with smiling face on hand to welcome guests, because he or she never knows when the next client is coming through the door. Or maybe the homeowner who keeps the living room neat and one bathroom always clean, because she or he wants to be able to welcome without shame anyone who drops by, not just those who call first.

We attend to the little things that make a difference in our living. As someone has pointed out, “The only humility that is really ours is not that which we try to show before God in prayer, but that which we carry with us, and carry out, in our ordinary conduct; the insignificances of daily life are the importances and tests of eternity, because they prove what really is the spirit that possesses us” (Andrew Murray, quoted in Vantage Fall 2013: 59).

Let suggest briefly three specific ways we can be faithful oddballs in this strange season. First, look at where we spend our energy and our resources. There are plenty of folks in our day who waste their time speculating about the day and the hour of Jesus’ return, and they call this or that event the sign of the fig tree or a fulfillment of prophecy. If Jesus himself didn’t know when he would return, why should anyone else pretend that he or she does? All we need to know is that God’s promise will be kept, that the future belongs to God, despite all the evidence of our day to the contrary. Others spend their time railing against everything they see as wrong, even down to how someone greets you in a store during the holidays. Our part is to spend our energy, our time, our resources to do God’s work now, focusing on what makes for peace and justice or in the prophet’s words, turns swords into plowshares. As Columbia Seminary president Steve Hayner noted recently: “We can mistakenly assume that our task is to stubbornly take our stand against anything around us that may seem out of place…. Faithfulness does not always manifest itself in grand and revolutionary gestures. Sometimes, all we are being asked to do is to be present for a neighbor in need” (“Following the Faithful God,” Vantage Fall 2013: 3). Let’s focus on doing something that is productive and honorable and lets people see Jesus in us.

Second, be imaginative. We spend a great deal of time trying to pick out or make the perfect gift for our loved ones and friends. We don’t just settle for the same old thing. We want it to match the person’s needs and lifestyle and say something special about our relationship. Why not let that same kind of imagination be evident in our discipleship? What if we shared God’s imagination, God’s dream, what if we were inspired by it, and committed ourselves to living toward his vision?

That’s what Isaiah did. In the eighth century BC, nobody in his right mind would have thought Jerusalem would be the destination spot for all the peoples of the earth. It was squeezed on one side by Egypt and on the other by Assyria, who were not much interested in learning from the God of Judah. And what nonsense about using the resources of war to make tools for farming! But Isaiah persisted in such foolishness, and invited the people of God to “walk in the light,” to own the vision of a new day and be an example of what could be.

We are called as well to open our eyes to the present day and to the presence of God, to imagine something as glorious as Isaiah’s vision of a world without war, then to realize our dream, our hope, is not wild enough, that eye has not seen nor has there entered our hearts what awaits us.

Finally, affirm and know that God works within history, not outside it. This is the meaning of incarnation, the reality at the center of our faith, that God became a human being in Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. God does God’s work in a place, through a person. This place. People like you and me. This goes beyond even the wonder of a baby in a manger to the realization that God works through human hands everywhere and in every age. As Frederick Buechner famously put it, the word of God is incarnate “in the flesh and blood of ourselves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys” (The Sacred Journey: 77).

So look for God’s hand in the events of daily life. In the routine and the extraordinary. In the country and the city. In the parish and in politics. Listen for his voice in those of people we scorn and suspect as well as in those whom we trust and admire. Be alert to what he is doing, be awake and watching.

Advent is a strange season. It invites us to wait when others are rushing. It bids us repent while our neighbors revel. It calls us to wear sackcloth when everybody else is in party clothes. But most of all, it asks us to imagine and see a new world in day when the vision has perished, and it gives us courage to hope while all around is despair.

O people of God, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!

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