Advent is here; our call to keep awake, to live in anticipation, to sleep with one eye open in readiness for the Savior’s appearing. And our readings and the collect of the day are full of images of darkness and light, human failure and sinfulness, our need to be shaped and formed by God. These apocalyptic images are stark, strange, born out of crises of their own times. It is from this sense of crisis that the ancient prayer of the Church arises: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
This is the way we start our new Church year – calling out to God from the crises of our own lives and those of our world. This year we will (for the most part) be accompanied by the Gospel of Mark in our Sunday worship. Matthew’s Gospel, which we lived with for the past year, was focused on Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s traditions and the renewal of God’s People. Mark is the story of conflict – especially between Jesus and the “high priestly rulers and their Roman overlords” – with Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and enactment of the Kingdom of God as a new development in Israelite history. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four, the most direct, and stripped down, as if he didn’t want to waste words when time was of the essence. Throughout the centuries, this Gospel has called Jesus’ followers to focus on the depth and quality of their discipleship: how are Christians to live in the conflict and tensions of their times that following Jesus leads them to?
Mark’s Gospel was written against the background of the crisis of the Jewish popular uprising against Rome and the military destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 a.d. Those events framed the way Mark remembered Jesus’ words and wove them together for Christians in that time and place. Chapter 13, from which our reading today comes, reaches back to imagery from Daniel, Ezekiel, and some of the writings found in the Apocrypha, to paint a picture of the coming of the Son of Man, the Messiah – once again just prior to Mark narrating the events of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
This is, of course, a far cry from the music that has been playing in the malls and on the radio – and not just because the retail sector is rushing Christmas, and not allowing for reflection and preparation, so that by the time we get to December 25 we are sick and tired of secular Christmas. What we so often see around us, and are understandably drawn to focus on, is the joy of Christmas: the birth of a child, the announcement of peace and good will, the astonishment of the shepherds, the abundance of gifts from exotic travelers from the East. All of these are aspects of God’s Good News and signs of our redemption. But we do ourselves and the Gospel is disservice if we skip over the harder, darker parts of the story that Advent leads us through.
Remember that the Magi brought gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh as an embalming ointment for death. Remember that the shepherds were both the dregs of their social structure and a reminder of God as shepherd of God’s People throughout Israel’s history. Remember that the angels’ song was to give glory to God who is the source of true peace and the common good – not Caesar, who tried to claim that role for himself. Remember that the baby was born to parents who were uprooted from their home, who then had to flee to a foreign country to escape the murderous reach of the king.
And the Child Himself, the Holy One born in Bethlehem? He was God incarnate, born to share our life, vulnerable and human, arrested, tried and convicted on false charges, nailed to a cross where – in the words of the King James translation: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6). And it is this same Lord who triumphed over sin and death in the Resurrection, returned to the realm we call heaven at the Ascension, and for whom we wait with eager longing at the end of this present age. This is the One we look for in hope – the sweetness, and the joy, and the suffering and sorrow, and triumph and expectation all held together, because that is the way God comes to us, that is the life Christ invites us to.
So in the midst of darkness – personal darkness, spiritual darkness, the darkness of winter, the darkness of our world – we wait for the Light of Christ. We light candles to symbolize that Light – on our Advent wreath, the candles we may put in our windows, candles we may light in times of prayer. And we pray, in the words of the Collect, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light – the goodness, and kindness, and compassion, truth and love of God – so that we may live and walk in the fellowship and company of Christ, now in the time of this mortal life, and in the age to come. To God be the glory.
Let us pray.
Lord, you come with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of your train:
Alleluia! Christ the Lord return to reign! Amen. (Hymn 57, adptd.)
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2017