Sunday, December 1, 2019
What are we preparing for in Advent?
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Advent 1 2019
As some of you know, I came later in life to the Episcopal Church. I never experienced Advent until December 1991. Prior to that I was in a church that did not pay any attention to the liturgical world. We decorated the house and put up the tree after Thanksgiving because that’s when in my world the Christmas Season started. So, I was truly excited to celebrate that first Advent with my family at St. Paul’s. None of us really knew what Advent was about even though Wendy was working as a trumpet soloist for the Roman Catholic diocese of Cleveland, but she never played any Advent services.
Imagine my shock that first Sunday in Advent when I’m hearing a gospel about the end of the world. Now in each of the church years, Advent 1 contains a passage of the little apocalypse from one of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew Mark or Luke. They all have them set in the time between Jesus turning over the tables in the temple and his arrest. I wondered what in the world does this gospel have to do with Advent. This gospel is all about the end of the world. Isn’t Advent about preparing for Christmas? A conversation with my rector taught me that Advent is preparing not just for the baby Jesus, but for the future coming of Christ and the kingdom into our world.
Today’s gospel is part of a long string of apocalyptic sayings of Jesus all focused on the end of the world and certainly do not sound like anything that is pointing towards Christmas, shepherds, nativity scenes or wise men arriving on camels!
First of all we need to realize that Advent was for many centuries not really about Christmas since Christmas was a minor church festival until the last 150 years. Until the mid 1800s Christmas was not anything like what we have today. It was Charles Dickens and Victorian England that really got our concepts of Christmas going. No the focus in the early church and up until the 1800s was in preparing not for the birth of Christ, but for the second coming and the end of the world. Now try to make a festive holiday with nice music out of that concept.
You may not know this, but the Puritans in Massachusetts made it illegal to celebrate Christmas for a period of time. It was viewed as a pagan holiday marked by drunken revels left over from the winter solstice.
So today we have what is really a twofold preparation. Yes one is for the coming of Christmas and this is very important to take time to prepare for something other than the annual festival of buying. However, we still retain these apocalyptic readings for there is a message to us to be prepared for the time when Christ will come again, which is something we reaffirm every single week in our Eucharistic prayers.
The Collect for this week clearly expresses this concept of dual waiting Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Incarnation literally means en-fleshed. The Latin word is carrne, which means meat. Jesus is meat and bones, totally human. Jesus has to be human for without Christ incarnate, there is no cross, no death, no resurrection. You cannot have Good Friday without Christmas any more than you can have Easter without Good Friday. It is also in his humanity that Jesus serves as the perfect example of what it means to be human. His life sets the gold standard for ours.
However this life is also not just about the here and now, but also about preparing for what is to come. Our charge is to bring the kingdom of heaven into being here and now as best we can in preparation for what is to come.
This is where the version of the little apocalypse in Matthew is instructive. We have the passage about one is taken and the other is left. By tying this to Noah and the flood, Matthew is saying that it is not the holy ones who are taken, but the sinful. This is the opposite of the rapture and what was described in the Left Behind series. Those left behind need to watch and be awake. They are called to prepare the way for the return of Christ. That is a central theme in this passage.
This waiting however is an active waiting not a passive one. This is what is unique in Matthew’s passage. Hence the parable of the homeowner who stays awake, not knowing when the thief will come. Johns gospel will develop this idea later, but this is the idea that the kingdom has already come. We are living into the in-breaking of God’s kingdom here on earth. Our call in this world here and now is to prepare the way and to make the kingdom a reality little by little, day by day.
This is why I believe it is critical that we as a church family engage in disciplines and actions during Advent that truly do prepare us for the return of Christ into the world. One idea that has been around for a while and I really haven’t seen it this year is the Advent Conspiracy. This program is to break us out of old habits of getting so wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of a Christmas season that seems to start earlier each year and get back to what is important. You can Google it, but here are the four principals
The conspiracy asks us to shape our Advent around 4 concepts:
- Worship Fully
- Spend Less
- Give More
- Love All
The idea is to put a different focus on the season and truly make it the season of Advent. This is not about taking away the fun of Christmas, but how to put more joy and less stress into the season while in the meantime do the work that Jesus is calling us to do. It is more about presence, our being present to the moment and each other, than presents as in gifts.
No matter how you decide to observe Advent I suggest that you look at how to make it about more than just gifts and running around. What might you do if you thought you had to answer to Jesus for what you have done in this life and you didn’t know when that might happen? That’s what today’s passage is all about. That is the question that Advent asks us. How will you be a faithful follower of Jesus as if he could tap you on the shoulder at any moment?