These Times, Are These Advent Times?
Where Will the Word Be Found?
Keep awake . . . for you do not know when the time will come . . .
When the Great Wheel of Time turns, and the Church begins a new year, there is always this warning, held within this hopefulness.
What could be more hopeful than anticipation of a new dawning? And what could be more fearful?
Both of these anticipations are held within the start of the church year.
In a dark time, as the year is falling into shadows within shadows, light is awaited. Part of the light is pageantry, ritual, rehearsal of the dependable entry amid the old dragons, whom we know St. George will slay.
Part of the light is held in doubt, our doubt, which is huge, especially in dark times.
And part of the light is held beyond hope and fear, in our breath, in the earth itself, in the groaning and travail in which all of us creatures live, in history and outside it.
Mark prophesies the falling of stars and the failure of the moon, darkness on the sun and the powers of heaven shaken.
Perhaps so. Will our democracy fail? Will there be a reassertion of the old order, so recently unmasked, in which the likes of Roy Moore and so many others run roughshod over the lives of women and girls?
Will the President prevail in his declaration that these things are less in importance than votes for his tax plan to make the rich fabulously richer and to cost the poor far more?
What has been set loose upon the world, in the past year by the 2016 election? And what will be set forth in the new year, in the 2018 election?
We wait with baited breath, watching the clash of titans. But the prophecy holds more than this, more than these signs.
This generation, Mark proclaimed, will not pass away without these signs and the presence of God coming among us. And he wrote this, O so many generations ago.
Therefore we must consider, that his words are twaddle – or, that the fulfilment of this prophecy has come among us, come true and come truly, time and again.
In the Easter stories, the angels present at the Ascension, say to the awestruck and also bereft disciples standing there,as Jesus disappears forever from their sight and hearing, “why are you looking up? This Jesus will return again as he came before.”
We so want that to mean, with glory and power, in victory and pomp. And down from the sky into which he disappeared. But what if the angels meant ‘as he came before’ to be in the way of lowliness? What if they meant, in a new Bethlehem: in an out-of-the-way town in the middle of nowhere, in a nondescript country, to a below-middle-class couple who were away from home and huddled in a stable where no one noticed them, except a few shepherds who thought they had heard angels saying this very thing.
My niece, who was not raised in any church at all, who was never christened, who did not say bedtime prayers or grace before her meals, is trying out churches now.
She has not yet found what she is searching for.
And what is that? She answers, “I’ll know it when I find it.”
It has to be more than progressive social justice. She has grown up in that, and found it not a substitute for a spiritual life.
So she seeks sermons that speak to the way angels, God, Jesus, grace and hope, can be found in her own life, her own griefs and fears. What does this love mean in her living? Not her to-do list of good deeds for others, but for her – what does it mean for her?
So far, only in very conservative churches does she find preachers attempting to address this. And yet, she knows that something is jarringly wrong in churches that do speak about her spirit but deny Christ’s love to so many who suffer injustice.
Are there words, are there warnings, are there signs and wonders that can embrace her generation?
Her generation, which is unchurched to a large degree, and which will not settle for old, familiar patterns of church as a place of Christmas fairs and pageants, coat collections and food baskets for the needy, but not of expectation that brings her heart to her throat in the sureness that she, herself, in her one life, will be transformed by the presence of God.
T.S. Eliot, in his poem about the Journey of the Magi, wrote of the sight of the Child as unsettling to the three: “There was a Birth, certainly,/We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death, /But had thought they were different; this Birth was /Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. /We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, /But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation . . .”
She is brave enough to be challenged, even by a birth that looks like death. But where are the preachers and the churches that dare to show her both the presence of God and the unsettling of the world, in the midst of a glory without Glory, a coming without Trumpets, a Hallelujah without an audience, and a wonder without Majesty.
Who will present God, in the midst of a silence that is not the silence of the stricken. A silence that is not the silence of the defeated, who know their voices will never be heard. A silence that anticipates a Presence that will grow, from a small sigh to the breathing of hope everywhere.
Henry Miller, searching for Bethlehem, wrote: Our destination is never a place, but always a new way of looking at things.
It’s hard, in the darkness, to know where to turn. Hard to glimpse, in small light, the quivering of wings, and hard to hear, in the drowse of our sleepy spirits, the carol that sings there is something to behold.
But this is what we await. This is why we keep awake. In this hope, that the world does not rise and fall on the actions of the Caesars who strut the stage, nor in the proclamations of the Herod du jour, but in the presence of God in grace-filled moments, that lie within our lives, and beyond our times.
Images: Winter Tree, Cardinals. by Deborah Chapman Newell, from her blog.
Meteor Showers: Shooting Stars. jpl.nasa.gov
3 Wise Men. Clipart Library, Free Downloads