Advent I, 2017
As we continue our year-long look at scripture words that are significant for our faith, on this first Sunday of Advent, it seems appropriate that our word is, well, Advent.
Advent is a Latin translation of the Greek Parousia, which means arrival of a notable person, thing or event. In Christian theology it has long stood for a three-fold arrival of Jesus Christ, in the flesh at Bethlehem, daily in our hearts, and in glory at the end of time. Advent then is about waiting and watching; waiting on the coming and watching for the signs of the coming.
“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
As we begin, once again, to tell the story of the babe in the manger, our attention is first drawn to last things. Advent will eventually carry us to Bethlehem, but the beginning seems to follow the advice of epic movie director Cecil B. De Mille, “Start with an earthquake, then build to a climax.”
Odd isn’t it, that as the calendar says we’re waiting for Christmas, scripture tells us to wait for Jesus’ return. Yet perhaps not so strange at all, for it puts us in the same sandals as those who awaited the birth of the Messiah. As they did not know when the first coming would occur, we who await return don’t know when to expect him.
That’s helpful because we know the script for the Christmas wait. We know what signs to watch for. We’ve got the 25th circled on the calendar, the candles have gone into the windows, this afternoon we’ll get the lights up. We’ve started the deep house clean so it looks good when guests and family arrive. The other day we made the post office stop for Christmas stamps for the cards. With the trifecta of shopping days last weekend, we checked off several items on our gift lists. We’ve lit the first candle of the wreath to help us count down to the promised day. All we have to do is wait and watch the script play out for 22 more days and we’re good.
But waiting for the expected return is different. It’s a different kind of waiting. Some waiting is passive. Since we don’t have this one circled in the calendar, it requires active waiting. Active waiting is centered on expectant watchfulness.
Think of it this way, a girl who stands on a street corner waiting for the bus to arrive experiences passive waiting. That same girl on the same corner hears the sound of a parade that is just out of sight will also wait, but this wait is full of expectation, a waiting on tiptoe, poised for what is to come. That is active waiting.
A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation. In the eddy of his favorite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing all the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear.
That’s the kind of active waiting Jesus tells his followers to practice: “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” Wait and watch.
It is also clear that Jesus does not intend for us to predict when he will return. He doesn’t even know. Still, folks act as though we are waiting for Christmas. Each disaster, each anomaly in a moon phase, every volcanic eruption, hurricane flood or continent wide drought are sure and certain signs that the end is here. The truth is, the signs associated with the end of the world have occurred… countless times. And still the coming of the Son of Man lies in the future.
To the froth and fever of those who turn every dark moment into advent hope that “This is the time!” Jesus counsels “Take Heed!” In the face of the apocalyptic crowd and their press agents, Jesus tells us, “Do not believe.”
Instead he is urging those who follow him to live as if his return, like the girl who can hear but not see the coming parade, is just around the corner. Active, expectant waiting. It is coming, but not yet.
In colonial Massachusetts an eclipse, like last summer’s occurred. The legislature was in session and most of the representatives panicked. Several moved to adjourn the session to which one house member replied:
“Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”
True, faithful, Advent hope in Christ’s coming recognizes the tension between trusting that the Lord is on the way, but not knowing when he will make his appearance. In this, our lives are marked, not by fear and anxiety, but by the hope and expectation that the Lord is near. Martin Luther King noted that the arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice. Not only is that our Advent hope, but also our fuel for active waiting rather than idle speculation.
In the rush we often encounter in following the Advent script and since most of us don’t fly fish often, as a prescription for our active waiting I appreciate blogger Lori Deschene’s guidance for the work of our faith. She writes: “Practice the pause. Pause before judging. Pause before assuming. Pause whenever you are about to react harshly and you’ll avoid doing and saying things you’ll later regret.”
In a time when division, uncertainty, confusion and hope for better all collide around us in the rush of life, to practice the pause, as it were, may just be the ticket to keep us alert, awake, and expectant, actively waiting in the tension of what is coming, but not yet.