Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent's my least favorite time to preach. The readings just don't appeal to me. Every year, though, I wind up doing at least one Advent homily. I was originally supposed to preach next Sunday, but the person who was scheduled for tomorrow needed to switch -- and when I looked at the readings, I realized that I'd preached on them three years ago as a guest homilist at another parish. So this is an old, very slightly recycled homily. I hope the references to 9/11 (which was more recent three years ago) won't seem too dated. When I reread this, I liked it too much to change a lot of it, especially since Advent scriptures are always such a struggle for me. That may be a sorry combination of vanity and laziness, though.
The Gospel is Luke 21:25-36.
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“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 powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Happy New Year!
Today is the beginning of Advent, the first season of the church year. Advent is when Christians are called to prepare for the arrival of Christ. During these four weeks, we get ready to celebrate Christmas, the festival that marks Jesus’s first arrival on earth 2,000 years ago. But Advent also reminds us to watch for the Second Coming, the one that hasn’t happened yet: the scary one that will be preceded by all kinds of chaos.
I always find Advent a disjointed, disquieting season. On the one hand, we have Jesus arriving in a cradle in first-century Judea. On the other hand, we have Christ arriving in a cloud, at some undetermined date, in the middle of storms and earthquakes. Advent makes me feel torn between the distant past and the unknowable future. Advent asks me to connect Incarnation –- the beginning of Jesus’ life –- with Apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it. Advent makes my head hurt.
And most of us have enough headaches right now. With Christmas scant weeks away, we find ourselves in a frenzy of shopping, wrapping, mailing, baking, decorating, making lists, checking them twice, fighting for parking spaces at the mall, and collapsing in exhaustion when we get home. We already have more chaos than we can handle. Contemplating apocalypse simply isn’t something that most of us want to add to our holiday to-do lists.
And, just to contribute to the confusion, does anyone else think it’s pretty weird for Jesus to compare the end of the world to a fig tree? “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
So people fainting from fear and foreboding is like a tree putting out new leaves? How does that work, exactly? Jesus’ parables are usually a little puzzling, but this one seems extreme, even for him. How can distress and destruction, storms and earthquakes, be compared to the joyous springtime budding of trees? How are those two things even connected?
Once again, we’re being handed a headache. We’re being torn between two apparently contradictory images.
One is an image of death. The other is an image of resurrection.
One is a description of Good Friday. The other is a description of Easter.
I can just picture Jesus smiling and saying, “Do you get it now?” Jesus links these two images because Jesus himself is the link between death and new life. Jesus makes that connection because he is that connection. Jesus reminds us that rebirth cannot happen unless death has happened first. He reminds us that a new world cannot come into being unless the world as we know it has first been destroyed. He reminds us that when things seem craziest and most chaotic, that is when we are actually closest to the Kingdom. Jesus did come in a cradle, and he will come in a cloud, but he also comes to us now, every day, because the Kingdom isn’t simply some future event. As Jesus reminded the Pharisees, a mere four chapters before this morning’s reading from Luke, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
Worlds end all the time. The world as we know it ends whenever a loved one dies, whenever we move or change jobs or go to war, whenever we go through periods of pain and turmoil. As Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel, “it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.” Chaos comes in all kinds of forms: personal, local, national. I’ve been through times like that these last few years; so has St. Stephen’s; so has the Episcopal Church. These are the times when the sea and sky are raging; when there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it; when every time the phone rings, it’s bad news. Good people are taken for no reason, and bad people triumph. There’s too much loss and too much pain. Hope seems very far away; grief overshadows everything. All the fig trees have been blasted, and we don’t know if they’ll ever bud again. These are our Good Fridays, when all we can do is hang on and wait for Easter. And this is when the Kingdom is closest to us, because every other defense has been stripped away. This is when Christ appears, in clouds and other disguises.
Several years ago, Episcopal Life printed a story about the relief mission at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, which became a refuge for rescue workers and volunteers after the September 11 terrorist attacks. According to priest Lyndon Harris, New York became “unfrozen” after the tragedy. “I saw a glimpse of the Kingdom,” Harris said, “people working together in loving relationships. That glimpse of the kingdom will haunt me for the rest of my life.” After a relief worker hurt his leg, an elderly black woman who had heard about the injury caught a bus to Ground Zero. She struggled into St. Paul’s and gave the worker the cane she used to walk. Then she left. (Note 1)
Vincent Druding, who kept a journal of his own volunteer experiences at Ground Zero, tells a similar story. He had been working nonstop for five days, and he was exhausted. He wanted very badly to go to a mass being held that evening, but realized that he had missed it. And then “a nameless priest in a white robe” appeared, in the middle of a chaotic supply area, and offered Druding the Eucharist:
Here, amid the nonstop movement and clutter of bodies and buildings, amid the constant acrid smell of smoke and smog, amid the signs reading “Warning, high levels of asbestos here!” amid the dozens of workers who seemed always on the verge of breaking down in tears, amid the steady flow of sobbing civilians who toured the place where their loved one lay entombed, amid the constant sounds of machines, crashing metal, and sirens, amid all the destruction and death -- here was a pocket of peace. Here, Christ was present, not only among us, but now, again, inside me. (Note 2)In the heart of chaos, Vincent Druding found himself standing before the Son of Man.
The chaos following September 11 was among the worst our country has ever experienced, but we survived it. We lived through all that grief and loss and sorrow, with the help of a lot of people working together in loving relationships. We lived through the end of the world. Most of you probably have your own stories like this: tales of personal apocalypse, terror and tragedy you thought would destroy you but didn’t, because love and help arrived in ways you could never have anticipated.
Advent reminds us to keep watch for the unexpected arrival of Christ. If we focus too narrowly on Jesus’s arrival as a baby in a cradle, we may not notice Christ’s arrival as an elderly woman with a cane. We may become blinded by our own clouds of distraction. And we may forget that we, too, are called to bring Christ and the Kingdom to others, to embody hope in the heart of chaos. For Christ has already come. Christ is present, not only among us, but here, now, inside each one of us.
1. Michelle Gabriel, “New York Thaw: Days after Sept. 11 provided ‘glimpse of the Kingdom’,” Episcopal Life, September 2003, 19.
2. Vincent Druding, “Ground Zero: A Journal,” in Philip Zaleski, ed., The Best Spiritual Writing: 2002 (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 66.