Today, the First Sunday of Advent, we, again, begin a new church year. We, again, begin to retell our Christian story of God’s redemptive activity in the coming and birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet strangely Advent begins by calling us to contemplate the end.
Jesus speaks of the close of this age, the consummation of human history, the culmination of this life and this world. For some, a sobering, chilling concept as captured by the words of that 13th century hymn, Dies irae:
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!
O what fear man’s bosom rendeth
when from heav’n the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth!
For others, the very idea of the end is so far removed from daily consciousness, any consciousness that it evokes little regard and provokes little response.
Whatever our view, ominous signs, suggestive of “end times”, are (and always have been!) about us. War, yes…yet with combating forces, for generations, no longer only nations, even regions of peoples, but ideologists and religionists governed by no boundaries and possessing greater firepower and perhaps greater vengeance with a capacity and willingness to annihilate. Poverty, yes…yet spreading through larger portions of our global community. Environmental change and degradation, yes…yet sweeping across grander expanses of our planet. These and more continuing downward arcs of “development” bespeak the terrible callousness, even terminal wickedness in the heart of sinful humankind.
In the face of the ever-present evidences of “the end”, until it comes – and “about that day and hour no one knows,” not even Jesus – Advent summons us to speak and act with expectant exultation. Today’s Collect gives voice to our prayerful petition for ourselves and our hopeful proclamation to the world: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came…” whose second coming, second advent, “in the last day, when he shall come again,” is the heartbeat of our greatest hope, “(that) we may rise to the life immortal.”
This is the promise we affirm every time we acclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Implicit in this promise is the assurance that God, as the only One who knows, is in control, that good will conquer evil, that peace will prevail over conflict, that love will triumph over hatred, that even given humankind’s proclivity for self-destruction, history has a redemptive conclusion, that, in Martin’s words, “the arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And this promise is our destiny, our end. Yet here and now, we have more than this promise, for Jesus gives us a prescription for the living of our lives in this world: “You must be ready!” One way, among many, to answer this call to readiness is not to gaze at the horizon for Jesus’ coming, but rather to keep busy, constant, steadfast in our Christian living. For me, “Christian living” means striving to do, to be for all people the love and justice, the unconditional generosity and equality, of Jesus. What Christian living is for you, you are called to decide.
Many years ago, during my discernment of a call to ordained ministry, I met several times with a wise priest and mentor, the Reverend Dr. Joseph Nicholson, the sometime rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis. During one of our conversations, in one of those “inquiring minds want to know” moments, I asked, “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” He paused for a moment, looking at me intently, then reached for his appointment book, turning to the page of that day. “This afternoon, I have hospital and Communion calls and, in the evening, a weekly Bible study and, after that, another meeting, and then, my wife and I will go out to dinner.” Obtusely, I asked, “OK. But what would you do?” With an understanding smile and kindly look, he replied, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would continue to attend to the labor the Lord has given me to do.”
This remains sage and sound advice for anyone, on any day, and at any time. So, let us, following Paul’s counsel, “Knowing what time it is…live honorably…putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, doing what the Lord has given us to do until the end when he comes again or until our strength and breath subside in death, whichever comes first.
Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)
Illustration: The Last Judgment (1467-1471), Hans Memling (1430-1494), National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland. Note: In the central panel, the resurrected and ascended Jesus, sitting in judgment of the living and dead, is enthroned above a rainbow, his feet resting on the earth. From his mouth emerge a lily (mercy), reflected in the palm-up blessing of his right hand and a sword (justice) reflected in palm-down condemnation of his left hand. He wears the scarlet robe at the time of his conviction to death (Matthew 27.28). His open hands reveal his stigmata (wounds) of his crucifixion. He is surrounded by his apostles and his mother, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Below, St. Michael the Archangel, attired in soldier’s armor, holding a scale to weigh human souls, drives the naked unrighteous towards the underworld (the right panel). In the left panel, the also naked righteous are greeted and guided toward the gates of Paradise on a crystal stairway and given clothing by St. Peter and the angels.
 Matthew 26.36-44 is the day’s appointed gospel.
 From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer, page 211, my emphases. The full text of the Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 The Memorial Acclamation, The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphasis.
 From Our God Is Marching On! by Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on the occasion of the march on Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965
 Romans 13.11-14 is the day’s appointed epistle.