GETTING READY FOR ADVENT
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
November 26, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 35: 1-4; Mark 13 (selections)
The sense of time, or time perception as it is called by scientists, seems to almost universal among human beings. As a recent article in the magazine Scientific American pointed out, it does not matter whether one is from a Western culture or from a tribal culture in Papua, New Guinea, we humans perceive time in much the same way.
Ask someone to talk about the past and the future and that person may unreflectively thrust a hand behind when talking about the past or use a gesture moving forward when talking about the future. We also look at the past, like this past year, and wonder how it is we are so close to the end of the year. And as we think about the future, it seems distant at times, although for many of us, I guess, Christmas is just around the corner as we scurry about doing our shopping, making our plans for Christmas with our families, and wondering where the year went.
But before Christmas there is Advent. We usually think about getting ready for Christmas, but apart from the chocolate Advent calendars we see in Trader Joe’s, we really don’t think much about Advent. This probably is true even as we worship on the Sundays before Christmas Eve. Advent is little more than one of those seasons in the church calendar that doesn’t seem to relate to our lives.
Advent, however, is an important season, not just in the ecclesiastical calendar, but in our lives. Advent, the English translation of adventus, is the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia, the word used in the New Testament to refer to the Second Coming at the end of the age.
It’s not really clear when Advent began to be observed as a separate liturgical season, but the earliest reference to Advent as a special season occurred in what is known as the second book of The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, a historian and bishop in the sixth century, who ref-erred to practices instituted by an episcopal predecessor in France, or Gaul as it was then called, St. Perpetuus, regarding the importance of good works from the Feast of St. Martin on November 11 to the date of Christmas, about forty days, much like Lent.
The date of Christmas itself had not been fixed until around 356 CE by the Emperor Constantine, and was set by the early church as a way of supplanting pre-Christian pagan customs around the winter solstice. Sermons on the meaning of Advent, such as the one by Cesarius, Bishop of Arles focused on the importance of fasting, prayer, and good works in preparation for the coming of the Christ.
It was only in the ninth century that this period was reduced from forty days to the four weeks we now call Advent. And the four-week period changed from a period of penance to a period of preparing for the coming of the Christ child by the decoration of churches and special foods, a time of waiting and preparation.
So, why is it if Advent is the time of waiting and preparation that we should prepare for such a time? We all have such busy lives and the world makes many demands on us. It is really important that we pause and consider what counts in our lives. Advent is a time to do just that.
Although we think of the New Year as beginning on January 1, Advent is actually the beginning of our liturgical year. Shouldn’t we then take stock of the past year and think about this new one to come? Shouldn’t we ask what has been an important part of your past year? What has brought you closer to God over the past year, if anything? This is part of getting ready for Advent.
The two readings this morning, although to our modern ears, may not seem related to each other, if you look at them from the traditional perspective, actually are tied together. The first reading, an adaptation of the first few verses of Isaiah 35, speaks to a time of new life, of hope for the future. The passage from Mark’s Gospel is known as the “Little Apocalypse,” and is also found with just a few minor differences, in Luke and Matthew.
This passage from the perspective of Christians in the first century offered hope because it promised the end of the age, a time when the “elect,” as they were called, that is, the early Christians, would be delivered from the persecution of the Roman authorities. It was also used to ask Christians how they had lived in the expectation of the coming of the Son of Man, identified as Christ.
The question for us becomes how is that we live in expectation? Of course, the question then becomes what is it that we expect? Here, in the twenty-first century, most people do not believe in such a literal coming, but some use this passage as a way to remind us that there is some form of judgment on our lives, even if we make it ourselves. The circumstances of our lives may create the judgment but it is judgment nonetheless.
Which brings us to getting ready for Advent.? More than the candles, the calendars, and even the music, Advent calls us to think about the past year and the year to come. Advent is not just waiting; it is a time of expectation, a time to explore how we live. As I suggested before, in order to expect, we need to reflect.
In reflection, again, we should ask ourselves what is it that draws us closer to God? And have our experiences over the past year helped us to be open to God in such a way? Each of us has a different way of being drawn closer to God. For some, it is prayer; for others, coming together in community and worship; for still others, art or music, or even feeding the deer.
It is important to learn how to allow ourselves to be drawn closer to God, for if we just hustle and bustle about our busy lives, we may miss those opportunities. Taking a moment to allow God’s sometime unexpected intrusion into our lives can result in the most wonderful of surprises. One could compare it to the difference between ordering a specific book on Amazon and the serendipity of discovery in a bookstore when we see something we had not expected. Getting ready for Advent is like that.
We think we know what to expect in Advent. We hear familiar carols and light an Advent wreath on Sundays; we look for the boxes of decorations to hang up in the church and our homes. We make our lists and move about. Caught in the Christmas fever that takes over our lives, it is easy to just push forward to the day so it can be over. But before all of this, let’s take time to think about the past year.
What is it in our past year that has moved us as a community of faith? We have participated in a community effort to stop the destruction of God’s creation through our support of the Monmouth Climate Coalition; we have spoken up against big power and its money and its influence; we continue to protect the community’s historical center.
We have worked with the Calico Cat and Family Promise; we have added our voice for gender equality and justice; and we continue to support those efforts which would welcome the stranger and the refugee. These certainly reflect our responses to the call to discipleship.
But in addition to how we have lived as a community during the year that is drawing to a close, there is also the question of how we have lived as individuals. I know that for me, I feel I have fallen short of the expectations and promises I had made for myself.
During this time of year I not only ask myself whether I have been drawn closer to God or found myself a bit further from God’s all-encompassing Spirit. This may seem like a strange question because if God’s Spirit is all-encompassing, how is it that anyone could find oneself further from God? I think it is because often–and I do not propose to speak for others but for myself only—that at times I have wrestled with the Spirit, pushing it away because I feel I cannot slow down my all-too-busy life. But slowing down is just what is needed.
When most of us think about slowing down, we think of eliminating demands that may seem peripheral to the center of our lives. And, yes, there is that aspect of slowing down. But there is another aspect of slowing down. And it’s a bit different from stopping to smell the roses, or at this time of year, the leaves that have fallen from the trees–yes, there is a fragrance there as well.
It’s using this time just before Advent to catch hold of us, to consider this year and to prepare for living in expectation. As we close out this year, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, let us use consider how we will live the coming year in the deeper meaning of hope and joy by sharing God’s love with others.
Let us come together in prayer: Strengthen our weak hands and make firm our feeble knees through your Spirit,O God, and bring us to that place where we fully experience your promise of justice and redemption. In the name of him who is your Spirit, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.