I spent my day off on Monday, fully geeking out, reading and collecting Advent liturgical materials from all kinds of sources. Now, to some that might not sound like much of a day off, but I also had puppies to distract me and all kinds of mayhem that they… unleashed… to keep me from getting too far into the weeds. But I am enough a liturgical nerd that I enjoyed reading and praying all these prayers and poems.
I really am not a fan of winter, especially the days that are so short. When I was younger I thought it was kind of a crazy idea that the Church would choose to start its calendar now, when it’s dark and cold and dreary. But the more I have grown and come to embrace the season of Advent, the idea of pushing back against the darkness in these four short weeks DOES make sense, especially for today. Our collect for the first Sunday of Advent, written by the “Father of the Book of Common Prayer,” Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549, goes straight to the heart of the matter. Let’s hear it again:
give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness,
and put upon us 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, now and ever.
It’s an amazing gathering prayer, which is what a collect is—it “collects” our scattered thoughts and focuses them outside our own concerns and worries so that we can assume an attitude of worship and prayer. And Advent itself is a season for us to pause, collect our scattered impulses, and focus on waiting. On anticipation. So it’s doubly appropriate.
This collect spans the full sweep of our lives, from the time we are born until we are united with the saints after we dies. It also pulls off the trick of talking about the two comings of Jesus that Advent focuses on: the coming of the Incarnate One, the Christ-child who will be born of Mary, and also the Christ who will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as we repeat in our Nicene Creed.
The collect reminds us that we can find the will and the strength to keep our orientation God-focused only through God’s grace. It is through God’s grace that we have strength to cast aside all that is comfortable and yet turn over our lives to Jesus, the Incarnate One who was and is and is to be.
The collect is hopeful and comforting in a way that at first, our gospel passage seems NOT to be. In our gospel passage today, Jesus talks about signs—how to look for them, how to interpret them, how to respond to them. And those signs can seem terrifying—including turbulence in the very stars themselves. The apocalyptic visions of heavenly turmoil described by Jesus that spin through our gospel passage brought to my mind the swirls of yellow in the night sky of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night.
Painted after Van Gogh had had a breakdown and had committed himself to an asylum, it shows stars and the moon swirling, vibrating, and spinning over a town at night. It’s as if Van Gogh was seeing the same celestial signs and portents that Jesus describes in our gospel. And yet, beneath the sky there is the sleeping town. And if you look closely in the center of the painting and in the center of the town, there is a church with its steeple reaching almost as high as the hills in the background. I wonder if that might have been comforting to Van Gogh.
The disaster that is being described in Luke’s gospel is the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. The fall of Jerusalem had brought the world tumbling down to the early listeners of Luke’s gospel—and they wanted to understand the cataclysm they had been through. They felt bereft. They were afraid.
Yet just like in Van Gogh’s painting, there is hope in the center of our gospel passage today—hope and promise that we may overlook if we only look at the signs of tumult. And isn’t that the way it often is for us?
When we’re anxious, when we’re afraid, our vision narrows to only the threat before us—it’s how we were instinctually made to operate. Of course Jesus understands that. But that’s why he offers us a promise and a hope in the center of our gospel passage. The challenge for us as individuals, and in the Church now, is to collect our attention to hear the words of promise that are within our gospel passage today, instead of focusing on the predictions of destruction that Luke’s community had just lived through.
We have in common our feelings of loss, our struggles against the darkness. So often nowadays, it feels like we are besieged on every side by worries, anxieties, crises, earthquakes, famines, wars, prejudice, and hatred—and many of us feel afraid. Afraid for our children, that they may grow up and be unable to establish themselves in the way that my generation did, or that they will inherit a planet that is polluted and rebelling against our abuse over the past 200 years. Fear that they will encounter the racist hatred and prejudice that seems emboldened in our world today.
Fear is also a powerful weapon in the hands of those who seek to divide us and get us to turn on each other. And unless we consciously name that attempted fear-mongering and reject it, the darkness may overwhelm us.
And for the Church itself, there is the constant foretelling of our obsolescence. We are told that we live in a “post-Christian” age, and that religious faith is an antiquated, foolish notion at odds with reason and the post-modern world, a world where everyone determines their own truth, their own values. In the face of the anxiety that both Luke’s community and our community face, however, Jesus offers words of promise and assurance. There in the middle of the gospel is the promise: even though heaven and earth might pass away, Jesus’s words will not, and stand forever, offering us light in the midst of darkness. Even if heaven and earth were to pass away, Jesus’s words, and his healing love for each of us, abides forever. Even when it gets darkest, the kingdom of God draws nearer still. Jesus asks to come into our hearts, to be invited in to the center of our lives, so that we can engage together in the work of transformation and reconciliation of ourselves, of our relationships, and of the world around us.
Advent recognizes not just two, but three distinct approaches of Jesus: the advent of the Christ Child, and the Advent of Jesus coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, of course. But there’s a third Advent: the one that is ongoing in our souls, as we pluck up our courage to let go of our fears and move more deeply into the life of faith. The challenge for us as the Church is to recognize that we are stretched between the arrival of Jesus--the one two thousand years ago, and the one that is ongoing even now inside our hearts.
We live in the in-between—and we can let that make us uncertain, or we can use this time to grow deeper in our collective relationship with Jesus and with each other. At our best, the Church makes present and visible God’s ongoing work of redemption and healing in our world. The season of Advent calls us to slow down and remember that.
Thinking of Jesus's admonition about the trees brought to mind singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman's beautiful description of what that faith is like in the first verse of her song “Every December Sky:”
Every December sky
Must lose its faith in leaves
And dream of the spring inside the trees.
Now, there’s some deep wisdom there. The dead leaves have to be released, and when they are, the bare branches are then revealed, reaching for the sky with a naked longing that is all too often obscured under the cloud of green they wear for half the year. By December, even the most tenacious leaves that have rattled overhead for months give way so that the new buds can push their way through. Those leaves have to give way, in faith that there WILL be spring stirring inside those trees, stirring even in December, so that the forest can shine out with new life and growth again. The trees unfurl their leaves in faith of the warming spring, and they shed their leaves in faith even in winter’s grip.
The courage to let go enables the promise of new growth. That’s the lesson of December, and it’s one of the most important lessons of Advent. To let go of all that the old year held in promise of the new.
To be watchful and alert for signs of hope and community all around us, countering that drumbeat of division that beats around us. To slow down. To let the anticipation build rather than grab as if the good is going to disappear. To trust that God is active in the world, everywhere from a stable two thousand years ago to the wintry hearts of you and me and everyone.
That’s a blessing and benediction for us that’s vital to hear, especially at the start of this advent season of watching, of waiting, of preparing for Christ’s coming among us that is ongoing, as we are invited to cast away the works of darkness, the fears and anxieties and tumult that so much of our life in drenched in, and instead fasten our hearts upon the promise of Jesus to always be beside us as our companion, teacher, and Savior.
It’s the promise we hear everytime we kneel around this altar and receive Christ’s body, given for each and every one of us. It’s the promise we hear in the middle of the night when our anxieties swirl overhead like Van Gogh’s stars. It’s the promise that, through grace, we will be strengthened in holiness so that we may welcome the three advents of Christ into our hopes and our lives: our past, our present, our future. Welcome Advent, under every December sky.