Contrary to what my children may think, being Episcopalian at this time of year is not solely about waiting until the last minute to put up Christmas decorations or shaming others who put up decor right after Thanksgiving (if they even wait that long!). As with any culture, there are likely to be particular practices that are different from the norm, and since they’re different they stand out, setting us apart. But all of what we do means something and speaks to who we are and what we believe. We light the candles on the Advent wreath one week at a time, watching the light grow until finally we get to light the Christ candle at Christmas, our anticipation fulfilled. In a society that can get anything right now, intentionally waiting says something. Sitting in the darkness means something. Making the intentional journey through Advent shapes us and forms us year after year.
People of faith commonly refer to our lives as journeys, and we’re no different. Like I said, we “journey” through Advent and also through Lent. We have the Season after Pentecost, which as a “season” implies growth. We have a church calendar that cycles round and round through the years and phases of the moon. We are constantly moving, traveling on a path, walking in the Way. It’s no wonder we can feel exhausted if we keep plowing forward at breakneck speed.
We need time to slow down. We need the darkness reminding us to rest. We need a mother heavy with child to remind us we can’t get anywhere too fast and might need help along the way . . . and patience as we trust in God’s timing, not our own.
Our readings for this first Sunday of Advent spoke to me about this nature of our journey.
In the lesson from Jeremiah, one is foretold who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God’s promise will be fulfilled when there is a way of justice and righteousness. In the Psalm, we recite with the psalmist that we lift up our souls, putting our trust in God, as we try to live faithfully as believers. We trust God to teach us God’s paths, to lead us along God’s path of love and faithfulness. And in the letter to the Thessalonians, there’s a prayer that “our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to” one another. The prayer continues, that the Lord might “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” As we journey along, there’s genuine compassion for our brothers and sisters along the way but not just family but also neighbors and strangers.
And where are we going with all this journeying?
The Thessalonians heard that we’re anticipating the coming of Jesus with all the saints. We hear today in our gospel reading that redemption is drawing near, that the time is coming when we will have the opportunity “to stand before the Son of Man.”
And how do we know if the time is ripe? If the time is near?
Are all the earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, climate change reports, refugee crises our summer fig leaves telling us the time is nigh? Don’t you know that there were likely signs such as these in the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death. Since the Ascension faithful Christians have been proclaiming the second coming of the Son of Man, anticipating when things would finally change from the nightmare that is, especially if you are one oppressed. With such hope for something radically different, we want to be aware, to be the first to notice that the tide is turning, the tables shifting, the kingdom of God coming near.
Is this what we’re running toward? Our spiritual marathon is so we can run into the kingdom of God?
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” Jesus says, and for those of us who are looking for a little more tangible goal, we might be puzzled at his words.
In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m not a runner. 😉 But I know runners, and they train and fuel and know the race courses, like all good athletes. There’s a definite beginning and end. Especially for marathons, the last leg of the journey is gruelling; I’ve heard folks describe out of body–or at least out of mind–experiences. There’s a loss of self, a loss of control–there’s just the movement and the breath and the hope of reaching the goal. Like I said, I’m not a runner, and the closest thing I’ve ever done to running a marathon is birthing my children. In that, too, once you’ve hit transition, there’s no going back. The pain is insurmountable, the control over the body gone, and there’s nothing but complete surrender to the process at hand. If we’re lucky, though, we have people nearby reminding us to be present, to breathe, and to keep going one moment at a time.
We don’t always lose ourselves in the journey in good, productive ways. We can lose ourselves to any number of distractions or temptations, drunkenness or worries and fall to the wayside, veering far off the Way that leads us to God. As much as we want to focus on distant goals, something out there or 24 days away, it’s much more difficult to live with the expectation that this might be the moment I realize Christ has broken into our lives.
All this talk of journeying and how to be along the way and how to be a loving, good neighbor, is really practice for how to live with presence that God’s promise wasn’t exclusively for back then or for them or for some distant time in the future, but God’s promise is fulfilled right now. Advent reminds us that it’s not just the work that we do throughout our lives as we follow the path we believe is leading us toward God. It’s preparing ourselves to meet Christ not only at the feast of his nativity but also at any moment when we’re so deep in the Way of Love that we’ve completely given ourselves over to God’s will that the Word that was present at the beginning and made flesh at Christ’s birth is as present now as it always will be.