What's Tony Thinking

Last Vesper Service


As happens every seven years, the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls this year on Christmas Eve, which makes for a busy day for clergy, choirs, musicians and all the folks who support the life of worship in a congregation, from the janitors, to the people who print and fold the bulletins, and those who set up, and clean up, the coffee and cookies.

It also means that those who come to church on the morning of Christmas Eve will find the peculiar season of Advent lingering long.

But there is a sense in which Advent is where we always live, as Christians and as the church. That is, we live between the now and the not yet, between a first coming and a final consummation when God’s grace is all in all. We are those who have experienced the blessing of Christ but not its trans-historical completion. As Paul puts it when writing to the Corinthian church, “Now, we see through a glass darkly (ancient mirrors were always clouded), but then we shall see face to face.”

And in that sense it is also an Advent world. We see glimmers of light — and sometimes far more — but the darkness is deep. We are feeling that especially this Advent with two major wars full of terrible brutality and loss of innocent life. And they’re are the deep shadows that fall closer to home — devastating illnesses, brokeness in families.., depression and addiction in so many of our lives.

We live always “between the times,” where joy and sorrow mingle. Which is why the very last words of the Bible are “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Among other things, this means is that we are not surprised that violence and evil distort and disfigure even as we sing of a Savior’s birth. That said, at this time of the year we perhaps feel the terrible things that happen more deeply. We long for “peace on earth” and “goodwill towards all” to prevail. As hard as it is, we cannot be surprised when they do not. That’s part of the power of a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. We sing in the dark. People of faith are always singing in the dark and against the darkness.

This Sunday at 4:00 (PST) will be the last of our “Advent Vespers” services. Given the activities of Christmas Eve, I imagine it will be a small gathering in our Zoom space. If you are able, I hope you’ll come. And by the way it’s fine if you don’t turn on your video — think of it as radio. To join, just click on the link at the bottom of the text under the Advent Vesper candle image to the right of this page.

The texts for Advent IV, which we will be reflecting on, hold the Advent tension. Even now, we aren’t to Bethlehem. The first lesson, in fact, seems very odd. It is II Samuel 7: 1 – 11 and 16. King David, now well established in power and ensconced in his royal palace, thinks it time for him to build God a house, a Temple. The ark of God, the definitive symbol of God’s presence, has since ever the Exodus resided in a tent, a moveable tabernacle — for a God on the move. But what has this to do with Christmas? Tune in to find out!

The epistle lesson, Romans 16: 25 – 27, are the closing words of Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome, a final shout out, “glory to only wise God” whose long hidden revelation has now been made visible.

The gospel text gets us closer to the actual Nativity (but still not there). It is the story of the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Gabriel says, “Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you!” to a young woman who is “much perplexed” by his words. “How,” Mary wonders, “can these things be?”

God’s call to women and men is, in Scripture, always met with a mixture of surprise, perplexity, fear and disbelief. Never do those called say, “Gee, what took you so long?” or “Of course, I’m the one you want!” As it was then, so it remains today: God’s incursion into our lives is a shocking joy, a gut-punch of gladness — if such a thing as this is possible.

So read over the lessons if you have a chance, and join me for the final glow of this year’s Advent season on the eve of the twelve day feast of the Incarnation.


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