Sunday, November 29, 2020
What is Advent?
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Happy New Year! We have made it to the beginning of a new liturgical year. Those who have grown up in the Episcopal Church or any liturgical church probably don’t realize how radical and strange Advent is to people outside our tradition. Advent done right is very counter cultural. Let me demonstrate this.
On one of the Facebook groups that I belong to someone posted the following question, “I’m an evangelical who has joined the Episcopal church. Can someone tell me what Advent is all about? Outside of Lutherans, the various Catholic churches and us most Christians do not understand the liturgical calendar. So how would you answer this person’s question?
Imagine you are in an elevator and have only those few seconds as you go between floors to answer this question. What does Advent mean to you? Take a moment whether you are here in the nave or at home to look at the person next to you and try to answer that question.
When I say that Advent is counter-cultural? I am thinking in terms of how this is to be a period of waiting and anticipation. A time to take on some sort of extra prayer discipline. Now I know that is hard most years as we rush about with pre-Christmas activities, but those are not necessarily Advent activities. I remember one person saying to me once, “Please Mark do not plan any extra programs for Advent. I don’t have the time, I’m too busy getting ready for Christmas!” I just looked at her and then she burst out laughing and said, “That didn’t come out quite right did it.” I told her, “No you expressed the issue perfectly.” This is the conflict between being in an Advent mindset and in a pre-Christmas rush.
Now I want to recommend a simple little video that will show up on our Facebook page this morning from a group called Busted Halo. It is a wonderful description of Advent in just 2 minutes. I posted it on my Facebook page and it got hundreds of shares, so yes watch it and then share it on your page.
The one slide that really got my attention is the one that says, “If you are sick of Christmas by the time Christmas Day arrives you haven’t done Advent right.” This is a year when maybe just maybe the pandemic is a bit of a blessing. It sets aside all the parties and rushing to the crowded shopping malls. The pandemic gives us a time to really consider being in an Advent state of mind rather than merely pre-Christmas. Then you can enjoy the 12 days of Christmas without being already exhausted!
I invite you to take a moment of quiet this Advent. What I call a “hush in the rush” for some prayer time. On Saturday December 12 form 9-12 Wendy and I will offer an Advent quiet day for the people of both St. Paul’s and Christ the King. We will take advantage of our large campus and spread out for a day of quiet, reflection and prayer. Wendy will offer a guided meditation and then we will offer teachings on the labyrinth and praying the rosary. If you don’t have a rosary I can point you to some places where you can purchase them. Bring a blanket or lawn chair if you want to sit outside, we will have places inside where you can sit and write or pray if you wish. Feel free to invite a friend or a neighbor to join us.
You see Advent is about actively preparing our inner selves for the coming of Christ. This more though than just the baby Jesus on Christmas. Today’s gospel is from the little apocalypse of Mark. This section speaks not of the birth of Jesus, but of his return at the end of times however one wants to interpret that. For us today I think the better way to look at this is how to prepare ourselves to see the presence of God, or Jesus in the world we see around us.
Taking a cue from last week’s gospel of the sheep and the goats we need to be looking for the presence of God, of Jesus in all who we meet and interact with. Remember neither the sheep nor the goats last week understood his statement about what you did for the least of these you did for me. The message last week wasn’t about helping those in need because this got us holy brownie points, but because sharing God’s love is what flows from a deep relationship with the holy. You cannot be in contact with the holy if you are rushing around like a crazy person chasing what the world tells us Christmas is about, which is gifts, entertaining and all the commercial end of Christmas. That’s following what Paul Tillich refers to as civil religion. That part, the civil, material world part of Christmas is what our society has perfected. I am asking you to look at something different.
Covidtide as our bishops refer to the period we are in with the pandemic is in some respects an extended Advent as we wait for a vaccine, for the virus to finally be controlled. In conversation with Bishop Ryan last week I talked of the importance of using this time to look ahead and plan for our re-entry if you will into something approaching a world that feels at least a little familiar. Now this pandemic has altered us forever. We have been catapulted into the world of digital church offerings and we will never go completely back to the way things were. Maybe some of the message of this pandemic is to force us to look at new ways of being church.
The next few months offer us an opportunity to make plans to hit the ground running this spring and summer when hopefully enough of us will have vaccines and can begin to connect again not only with those people in our parish, but in the greater world. Now this may require us to take some risks, but Jesus never said following him was without risk. Know that your vestry and I are in conversation with the diocesan Mission Amplification team on some possible programs and ideas that will get us back on track in the spring and fall of 2021. Do we know exactly what that will look like yet? No, we don’t but then again, this time last year I never dreamed we would have a digital ministry with Morning Prayer every morning and livestreamed services every Sunday. The bishop said, “People want to know what best practices are, but we don’t know because none of us having every walked this path before. That means that this is time to risk something new, something different.”
With that I want to announce a new service that we will pilot over the next three weeks of Advent. Julia in talking with the families with younger children brought a concern to me about a hesitation to return to in-person worship. What Julia and I have designed and Bishop Fisher has approved is a family liturgy that we will offer at 9:15. We will hold the services outside if weather permits or in the parish hall so we can spread out in family groups. Bring a blanket, some lawn chairs if you want and join us for a more casual service. I have the format laid out for the next three weeks and let’s see how it goes. We may tweak it for January or make wholesale changes, but we are going to experiment. By the way there are four other parishes trying something similar and I will be in contact with them to see what they are doing.
You see this is not about waiting as in sitting around twiddling our thumbs and saying woe is me. This is about active waiting, being ready for what is to come. I saw a bumper sticker a couple years ago that was in purple and said, “ Jesus is coming, look busy.” Well we are not just going to look busy but we are going to be busy, busy spreading the gospel this Advent. I hope this is an Advent that will help all of you truly be ready for Christmas for we all need that this year.