Yikes, it’s Advent! That is the proper liturgical formulation for this season: “Yikes, it’s Advent.” It is an admission that no matter how closely we pay attention to the calendar, no matter how much we follow the development of the Christian year, we are still surprised when Advent comes. Even though we have been decorating for Christmas at church, it still surprises us. Because, it just seems like it is too early. “It’s too early!” we exclaim to all we meet. It can’t be time for this, we opine. I’m not even sure what opine means, but it seems to fit this season. And not because of the greenery!
We are just not ready, we have too much to do, our lists grow longer, our accomplishments are fewer. For everything we check off, six more tasks slip onto the list. How does that happen? This is where the whole legend about elves came into being: people found their Christmas to-do lists growing almost before their eyes. Who is doing this? Must be elves. We’re not ready.
Which is precisely why we need Advent. The originators of the Christian calendar knew that we all would need a swift kick to get the new year started. So, Advent begins with a call to get ready. Because we aren’t ready. Worse than that, we’ve forgotten that we have anything to get ready for. Or we thought that what we are supposed to be getting ready for is a celebration of the past. We are preparing for a historical observation of something God did at one time. And we are still grateful for it; we are still defined by it; we still try to live differently because of it. But it is, to an extent, old news. It is a case of “been there, done that” when it comes right down to it. Or is it?
What is it that we are waiting for? What are we looking for? The first reading for this first Sunday of Advent reminds us that what we long for is not a historical remembrance but a new reality, a new encounter.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1a, NRSV) is the plea. We know you are present; our faith tells us that you are here. But we need to know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Shake us up so that we can be certain again. We’ve begun to wonder; we’ve begun to doubt. So, do it again, Lord. Do it again.
This is where our historical observance comes in. This is where telling the story becomes so important. Not just so that we can look back with a sigh and long for the good old days, not so that we can wistfully wish for the blessing that they had back in the day, but so that we can learn to recognize it when it comes again.
That is the task of Advent: to pay attention to what is and what might be, not simply to look back at what was. The people of God were in exile; the foundations of their nation had been shaken; their comforts were taken from them. The human institutions that they had constructed no longer held the security that they had begun to take for granted. So, they began to look elsewhere, and they realized that their faith was shaky as well. They needed a boost. So, they looked backward and forward at the same time. The mountains of our society were shaken, so shake the mountains, O Lord. The foundations of our nation were shaken, so shake the foundations, O God.
They needed an Advent upside the head! They needed a hope that shocked them. We remember, they claimed, we remember how you used to deal with us, and we want that again. We want to remember as you remember. Their words seem like they were reminding God, but really, they were reminding themselves. The look back was not just to give them a warm feeling about what once was, but also a way to spur them to live differently.
Advent is a reminder to get out of our sense of complacency. It is hard to be complacent when things are difficult. When all is going well, then we need the two-by-four of Advent to wake us. But when things are difficult, we use Advent as a prayer, as a reminder to hope.
Believe it or not, that is the call of Jesus in our Gospel passage for the week. It is a call to hope. But a shocking hope, a hope that startles, that shakes us to the core if we’re thinking about it. But a hope nonetheless. We sometimes must listen hard to hear something hopeful in these descriptions, but it is there. Underneath sometimes, but still there.
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. … "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. … And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." - Mark 13:24-26, 32-33, 37, NRSV
Nervous? Well, yes, because there is much to do and a deadline to meet. But at the same time, we hear the promise that the master is near. Not as a threat, but as a promise. We are not alone. What we see in front of us is not all that there is. History is heading somewhere. We may not know where exactly, except that it is someplace called the Kingdom of Heaven. Or as Jesus was fond of describing it, it is Life. And that is what we long for in the end, life. Life in all its fullness and meaning, life in all its joy and promise. That’s what is coming; that is what is promised.
And we forget every now and then. We forget that we are looking for anything, that we are hoping for anything. Until Advent comes and knocks us upside the head with a not-so-subtle reminder: Watch!