First Advent

Reflection for November 29, 2020 (First Advent) – Lawrence DiCostanzo

Isaiah 64:1-9, First Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Happy Advent!

I’d like to start with a couple of bicycling stories.

If you’ve ever driven up Mount Diablo, you know that the last eighth mile to the small parking lot at the very top is a 16 per cent grade.  Ascending this hill on a bicycle is painful.  The legs are hurting from standing on the pedals.  Breathing is a burning gasp after gasp.  Let us not even think about my heart rate.  But then I burst onto the top in triumph.  I have got the Gold.

This climb is my dream of how I enter into heaven.  I am climbing and panting, and everyone who has ever loved me is at the top and shouting, “Come on, Larry!  Come on!”  Of course, my mother is shouting, “Come on, Lawrence!  Come on!”  The climb and not the arrival is the dream.

This week I took another ride,– from Orinda to Danville and back by way of  Alamo, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Moraga.  As you know, these are the deep suburbs.  Actually, I love the suburbs.  The sky was dark blue, and the trees were an incredible range of red and orange.  The suburbs were wrapped in glory, burning with a smokeless fire.  And the air was fresh and cool.

And, as I frequently do, I said out loud to myself and to my ever tolerant riding companions,  “How can I leave all this behind?”  But, as often has happened in the past few years, in the twinkling of an eye, I thought to myself,  “You will never leave this behind.  God knows you well, and the new creation will be like this.  There will be bike riding there.”  Beautiful.

Perhaps you can tell by now that I am a romantic.  And so I came to Advent thinking it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  And I’m singing, “Look at the five-and-ten/glistening once again/with silver lanes and candy canes aglow.”   And, then, Jesus comes up on my blind side and punches me in the face.  He says, “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.”  That demolishes my Christmas dreams and hits at my cycling romance.

Jesus’ prophecy is about something that we do not think about very much.  Perhaps, we do not like to think about it very much as it seems so distant and fantastical compared to our daily lives.  But it is something that was very much on the mind of the early church.  The prophecy is about the end of time, and maybe we should think about this more.  For one thing, Mark records this prophecy as Jesus’ own words.  For another, he puts this passage in as part of Jesus’ last teaching before his passion and death.  And last, we are involved.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year.  It is about the Incarnation, the coming of God to us and of his presence with us in Jesus.  But we actually live in the middle of the year.  Our dwelling place is really in the green season of Pentecost.  Living in this middle ground, we memorialize the Incarnation, we meditate on it and we reenact it.  But we are actually in history looking back on it.  Of course, it is really important as the gateway to the good news.  But, in history, it has already happened.

But Advent includes a deep reminder of something that is still to happen in our future.  This is the end of time, the second coming of Jesus, the new creation.   What Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel is that we had better consider the Omega moment which has not happened yet in history.

Jesus says this very carefully.  He says you don’t know when this moment will come.  He says:  Pay attention, keep it in mind.  The leafing of the fig tree signals that summer is near.  Keep watch over your master’s house while he’s away.  Be a good doorkeeper.  You don’t know exactly when the master is coming back.  And on November 8, in the Gospel from Matthew, we were told to be good bridesmaids with plenty of lamp oil.

But we don’t know exactly what we are waiting for.  As to what will actually happen, Jesus says that the sun and the moon will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, the Son of Man will be manifest in power and glory, and the elect will be gathered up.

This seems very scary.  And the fear is enhanced by the many images of the Last Judgment in our complex and marvelous western culture.  But I think I can say that, if Jesus is telling us this will happen, it has to be good.  Because God is love, and we at Saint Alban’s know this because we know love.  1 John 4-8.  And God’s love for his people is so consistent that it appears in the Bible when, for the first time, God actually explains what he is like. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6 and 7.

Jesus is using metaphorical language, the standard language of the prophets.  What does it mean?  I think that, if the sun is darkened and the stars are falling, God must be taking raw materials and remaking creation.  This is good,  And I say “Awesome.”  Or it’s like in Psalm 29 when there’s a terrific storm and all the people in the temple say “Glory!”

The real issue for us people in the green season is what do we do in the meantime?  I think that Jesus’ advice about keeping your eyes open, keeping watch, is actually the most important thing for us in this passage.  God has got the rest planned without consultation.  Here are three ways to keep watch.

First, live in hope.  Sometimes I think that Paul was wrong and that he should have said, “These three abide, faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is hope.”  Hope gives a kind of steadfastness and expectation and joy.  It is the friend of imagination.  It’s as if hope is a fresh breeze during a hot night.  Or it’s the endurance of a cyclist.  Or it’s the endurance of a cancer patient.  Hope gives us the intimations of a good future.  I think that hope is God’s own love for us that he sends into our hearts.

Second, I think that sometimes we are given the blessing of living in the Omega moment in our hearts and our imaginations.  I don’t really think that all the strong and consistent feelings I have when cycling are false.  When we sing a good hymn together, or when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” at communion, the Spirit is with us to comfort and give us happiness.  We are singing in the New Jerusalem.

Third, don’t get carried away.  I repeat that, although we celebrate Advent, we actually live in the season of Pentecost. And we have a lot to do.  Maybe we are watching for the last day simply by doing things.  Maybe this is how we keep the door of our master’s house.  In Jesus’ talk about the last days in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, he really makes us reflect on the doing.  He says:  “. . . take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For . . .

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

I was a stranger and you invited me in.

I needed clothes and you clothed me.

I was sick and you looked after me.

I was in prison and you came to visit me.”