I awoke this morning with the words of that Christmas jingle on my mind: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” My immediate second thought? Whoa! I was getting way ahead of myself!
Yes, Christmas is near. Bare weeks away. Many, religious and not, have begun seasonal yuletide planning. The cycle of Christmas parties soon will begin. The commercial appeals for us to “buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend”, beginning around Halloween, now go full blast.
Still, for me, this is the first Sunday of Advent. From the Latin, adventus, “coming”, that season when the church gets ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Today, with an urgent summons to prepare – one, however, not sung with the cheery optimism of “the most wonderful time of the year”, but with the shout of Isaiah. The prophet, on behalf of a despairing people, cries to God for divine intervention (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”) and confesses the people’s sins (“our iniquities, like the wind, take us away!”).
Isaiah speaks for me as one who lives in a tragically broken world of unpardonable and growing disparities between rich and poor, of institutional abuse by officials who, at times, don’t do what they are supposed to do and even when they do, often enough, they fall short of doing the most ethical thing, and of malfeasance in the public square regarding the misuse of money or power or both.
Isaiah also speaks to me, clamoring for my attention, rudely interrupting my holiday planning to remind me that whatever or whoever the cause of the tribulation, I live in this world, therefore I have a part to play.
Turning to Jesus, I sought a hopeful word. But no! The disciples ask about the end of time and Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple and their coming persecution, then saying, “In those days, after that suffering” (Mark 13). I would expect to read that things would get better. No again! Jesus describes the disintegration of the cosmos: “The sun will darken, the moon give no light, stars will fall from heaven, the powers of which will shake.”
C’mon, Jesus! “Gospel” means “good news”! Got any?
Yes, he says, speaking of “the Son of Man coming with great power and glory”. Having come once in his birth, he will come again, according to centuries of Christian theology and tradition, to set things right, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, that “all manner of things will be made well.”
However, there’s a catch! No one knows when he’s coming. I surely don’t. Apparently, neither does Jesus. Though he promised, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place”, it’s as truly obvious that many generations have passed without this prophetic word being fulfilled.
Perhaps those who first heard it were amidst the sort of persecution of which Jesus speaks. For them this was a message of comfort, advising them to “keep awake”, to endure with hope. However, centuries later, for me and I’d guess for many who live fairly comfortably and do not yearn to experience cosmic upheaval, “keep awake” means something else.
“Keep awake” is a cry for me not to be complacent about the work that I, in this generation, which has not yet passed away, am to do.
“Keep awake” is a command that I renew my active personal concern for my sisters and brothers who dwell in great want of love and in grave need of justice.
“Keep awake” is a charge for me, for I am only one, to continue to join with others, with refreshed vision and mission, to do something tantamount to tearing open the heavens that those who live in life’s shadows might see light.
Will any of this make this a most wonderful time of the year? I don’t know, but I do believe such efforts will make the time – indeed, me – faithful.