What's Tony Thinking

Advent I: Look Up


Here is the first of my promised Advent Meditations.

Luke 21: 25 – 28 (the complete Lectionary text is Luke 21: 25 – 36):

“‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the power of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.’”

It almost seems perverse . . . the church’s annual insistence on beginning Advent with a reading from the apocalyptic chapters of one of the gospels.

Everywhere else “Christmas is coming!” Christmas trees and lights are going up. Plans are underway for parties and family gatherings. There’s music in the air and presents to be bought.

People come to church ready for a break from the grim and the dark. We come longing for the tender scenes of mangers, of a mother and child, and for the comforting sounds of the familiar carols.

And what do we get?

“. . . On earth distress among nations . . . roaring of sea and waves . . . people faint from fear and foreboding.”

Instead of a carol like “Silent Night,” an Advent hymn like “Wake Awake.”

“Wake, awake, for night is flying; the watchmen on the heights are crying:
Awake, Jerusalem, arise! Midnight’s solemn hour is tolling . . .”

On the first Sunday of Advent we are reminded that God’s coming is not limited to the birth in Bethlehem. Each time the sacrament is celebrated the church continues to confess, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.” Past, present and future.

Advent tells us that people of faith not only look back; we also look forward. Jesus not only came, he is coming. Here and now, that is existentially, and at the consummation of the story, that is eschatologically.

But there’s something more to be said for these passages that speak of the earth and heavens being shaken, of signs in the sky, tumult on earth, and people faint with fear and foreboding.

And that is that while such texts are unexpected and challenging in all sorts of ways, they also describe the world in which we live in ways that more sentimental and romantic seasonal images — however heart-warming and appealing — may not.

Apocalyptic literature is written from and to times when everything is shaking, when worlds are ending and new worlds coming. When our world and many lives are in tumult, these Advent texts do not offer a sweet distraction, but a truthful depiction of the present darkness.

Ours is a world of apocalyptic forest fires, of migrants tear-gassed at the U.S. border, of unremitting gun violence, of homelessness that defies our well-intended efforts. The list could go on, and on.

My point is that these apocalyptic passages with all their gaudy images and wild language may be less perverse and more pastoral than we know. They describe a frightening reality, where people are faint with fear and foreboding. Doesn’t that sound just a bit familiar? That does sound like our world today, does it not?

So on the first Sunday of Advent we acknowledge a truth: the darkness around us is deep. We need not pretend otherwise.

And this: paradoxically, but hopefully the church chooses to begin a new year (Advent is the first season of a new church year) not at the point when the corner has been turned, the light returns and days begin to lengthen again (the winter solstice).

No, we start a new year when the darkness of winter (at least in the northern hemisphere) is yet to grow darker and the night to grow longer.

“Advent tells me,” remarked Barbara Brown Taylor, “that people of faith know it will [at least sometimes] get darker before it gets light.”

So, then, how are we to live in such times of shaking, times when the darkness around us is deep and may very well get both deeper and darker before it gets light? How are we to wait faithfully in the dark?

To such questions Jesus has an astonishing answer. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Forget “duck and cover;” now is the time to “stand tall.”

So the “lift up” liturgy . . .

Presider: Lift up your hearts!
People: We lift them up to the Lord!

In such times as these our instinctive response, one now encouraged by demagogic leaders, is to erect barriers, build walls, and hunker down behind locked doors. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But instead of pushing all the heavy furniture against the door in order to keep everything that scares us out and pulling pillows over our heads as we hide under the covers (to borrow an image from Taylor), these are the times to light a candle and place it in the window, a sign of hope and heart. A light shines in the darkness.

A member of a congregation I once served told me a story about her mother who was a choir director. She described what happened when people in a choir get confused, miss a cue or different sections step on one another. The choristers instinct is to look down. To stare at their sheet music with furious intensity.

This choir director told her singers, “I get that. I understand your reaction. But it’s just that it’s the completely wrong thing to do. When things are off, when you’re a little lost, look up. If you look up, you’ll be able to see me. And I’ll be able to help.”

Jesus’ word to the church in a time when the darkness around us is deep is, “Look up. Look up, you’ll see me coming to you,” says Jesus. “I can help.”

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