Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
Today is Advent 1. I bet most of you knew that, right? I am willing to bet that many of us here today know that the church season of Advent is about anticipation, preparation, and waiting for the future. I bet that Advent is a favorite season for some of us: a season of beauty, a season with music that transcends and transports us to places of great joy. And………I am willing to bet that for some of us, the season of Advent can slip away – almost unobserved. I bet that it can pass by with great speed without our even being aware that it is passing — and then its ending is often a surprise — not noticed until it is suddenly right on us…..
And that might happen this year even if it usually doesn’t happen to you. If you recall, there are 4 Sunday’s in the church season of Advent. Today, Advent 1, the first of those 4 Sundays, marks the beginning of the church year – and the 4th Sunday this year falls right on Christmas Eve, which doesn’t always happen – we usually have at least a few days between the Sunday of Advent 4 and Christmas Eve. But this year the very next day is Christmas — so… there are no days between Advent 4 and Christmas Day. All this makes for a fast season to go by even faster, so it’s easy to forget that we’re still in Advent that last week.
I used to be a bit flummoxed by the season of Advent because, while I understood that Advent is a period of spiritual preparation in which we make ourselves ready for celebrating the coming, the incarnation, of Jesus at Christmas, I didn’t understand why we would hear about the end of days right before that in Advent. It seemed totally out of order to me, and so I was always thrown by the scripture readings for the first two Sundays during Advent — the ones that focus on the second coming of Christ – readings that are not happy or joyous, rather they’re scary and apocalyptic. It wasn’t until the last two Sundays came along that we would hear about the joyous time of Christ’s birth – his first coming. So, over the course of the four weeks, scripture readings would move from passages about Christ’s future coming return, to scripture about Christ’s initial coming, when Jesus arrived in the Nativity story we know so well. I just didn’t get it.
As I grew older, I heard this concept of the past and future coming referred to as: the history of our Savior’s coming and the mystery of our Savior’s coming – the before and the not yet — and I liked that – it helped me make sense of these four week’s scripture readings……….This juxtaposition of history and mystery is about the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming. Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, rectified and joined those 2 concepts perfectly in the spirit of Advent: He wrote, “The unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promises — and in fact the same promise.”
So, while Advent is certainly a joyful time of anticipation when we look forward to Christmas, it is more than that. It is also a penitential time, some call it a little Lent and it typically involves scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and repentance. It is no mistake that our vestments and altar hangings can be the same colors in Advent as they are in Lent. We look back upon Christ’s coming with celebration – Christmas — while at the same time looking forward in anticipation to the coming of the Kingdom, and we prepare for the time when Christ returns for his people. In Advent we sing the beautiful hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, and each week we say in the Nicene Creed: “We await His coming in Glory”. The history and the mystery.
There are several other well-loved traditions in which many participate during Advent – Such as using an Advent wreath. Here in church at the beginning of the service we light one candle the first week and add another to it each week. Many of us have Advent wreaths at home that we use each day when we pray or during our time of reflection. ……Many of us use Advent calendars – and I don’t mean the type that when you open the little window each morning you find a different piece of chocolate or a number telling how many days are left before Santa slides down the chimney. There are many types of Advent calendars available for us but if you don’t have one yet please take one of these. They are available on the table out in the narthex. This one is created each year by the Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlestown. Each day has a Bible verse related to the drawing and phrase to use for your prayers or reflections that day.
It can be difficult to keep our minds on worship during Advent in the midst of holiday parties, shopping, and the need to put up lights and decorations. But let’s really try this year to slow all the frenzy and busyness and intentionally pay attention to some of these Advent traditions – aside from being beautiful, these traditions help us slow down and keep us focused on our worship, and on the purpose of the Advent season….they help us reflect on the history and the mystery.
In the adult forum last week we were discussing Barbara Taylor Brown’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” There was a passage that struck many of us very forcefully and I’d like to read it to you as we think about taking time during Advent. A husband asks his wife,
‘How long since we have done this?’ He says….. How long since we have left our house, which we know so well, to climb a hill and sit next to each other in the dark with nothing to do but wait for the moon to rise? How long since we have sat quietly under such enormous space? ‘Twenty years,’ I say. ‘Why is that?’ he says. He and I both know why, but the answer makes me so sad that I cannot say it out loud. We have been busy. For twenty years.”
So by all means prepare for that Christmas feast, visit relatives and enjoy the giving and getting of gifts, but don’t miss the beauty of Advent. Don’t get so caught up making sure the tree is trimmed just right or with finding the perfect outfit for the Christmas party that we miss the glory of Advent.
Now there is nothing particularly profound or Earth-shattering in that message this morning. Slow down. Pay attention. Get Ready. But part of the message is much more subtle…..and that is to be aware of the NOW; to be aware of when Christ is being made known to us in the moment; to remember that just because we are looking back, and anticipating the future, does not mean that we should forget that the Kingdom of God is here, today. And we should revel in the presence of God in our world.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we all know that life is short and we know this season of Advent will go by fast. Don’t be too busy!! – or you may miss it. This year let’s really, really try to honor and live into the spirit of Advent…..however we do that — praying with candles in a darkened room, or through meditation, or by walking the labyrinth out back that is not yet covered in snow or by using the Advent calendar.
And most importantly, let’s remember that the promise is Jesus Christ. Rejoice in the knowledge that he has come, and that he will come again…and celebrate that he is always with us, right now, right here in this time of the before and the not yet. Let us commit to living the Gospel’s message of “Keep Awake”…..Not just for this Advent season but for all of our lives. Remember last week’s Gospel? Let us see the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the homeless — and let us act on what we see with compassion and love as Christ teaches us. Let us see the face of Christ in each other….
So watch and be alert for where Christ is being made known to you in this crazy world right NOW? Be aware of what God is doing in your world. Think about how are you preparing to respond to it. Christ is the history and the coming mystery but Christ is here now, abiding in each and every one of us and in the relationships we have with each other. This I believe is the essence of Advent.
This season of Advent is short and goes by fast. Don’t be too busy! Stay awake – or you may miss it!