Advent is not the most comforting season of the liturgical year. It itches with anticipation. It scratches at the walls like a prisoner counting out the days. It mangles time, mixing up what has been with what will be, preparing for a new birth and the end of the world. There’s a good reason that Advent gets its own special calendars.
And there can be little doubt that we live in mangled times, when the sirens of wars long thought settled are raised as the curtains open on another act in a theatre where everyone had already gone home. Mangled times, when the business of government is carried out by night and in secret, while sexual harassment has been happening in broad daylight all around us. Mangled times in which the lives of children are threatened by the sudden advent of gunfire. Mangled times, in which the words of the gospel, the words of the prayers of many nations are wielded as bludgeons and as weapons, and used to condemn instead of to comfort.
It is tempting to skip to the end. It is very tempting to cling to that one small word in the first line of today’s gospel: “after.”
After that suffering, the outrageous slanders and assaults of life, after all these things, there will be judgement, righteous and justifying and terrifying and final.
After all these things, there will be resolution, an end to the suspense of one thing after another.
After all these things, there will be revelation, and the fears that have nibbled at our heels will be illuminated and dispelled by the brightness of salvation, and our sins will be bleached out by the disinfecting light of a thousand suns and our vision will be exploded by the final face to face encounter with our God. After all these things.
But we live, as WH Auden said, “for the Time Being,” and “in the meantime.”
Even Jesus had to live, in his incarnate life, one moment at a time. He submitted willingly to the discomfort of the season labelled, “in the meantime.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that the hour might pass from him: that unit of time, of anticipation, of dwelling in the itchy and scurrilous and uncomfortable present, with no way to hurry on to the end, and no hope for sleep. He was too present for that. His disciples did fall asleep, even after all of his warnings: the weight of waiting was too heavy for them, and it pulled their bodies to the ground and their gaze down to the void, to avoid the moment when, had they been able to pay attention, they might have found the moment of utmost clarity, the climax of the drama of the love of God played out among us, the humanity of Christ stretched to its limits by this moment of fear and anticipation, and redeemed by the perfection and endurance of his love.
One of my children, when she was very young, missed the end of almost every Disney cartoon movie, because whenever anything remotely frightening happened, she would deal with it by going straight to sleep. Baby lion king gets caught in a stampede? Just go to sleep. Dinosaurs see giant fiery meteor hurtling towards earth? Sleep.
This instruction of Jesus was aimed at such children. Stay awake! he urges; even when the light is loud and the sky is eldritch and especially when the signs of the times are worrisome; when storms disturb the vessel, and rock the boat: do not close your eyes, or turn your head away. Stay awake.
I get the need to take a break. I get the need to sleep – trust me, I am all about taking naps these days, post-mono. But sleep can be another way to manipulate time, to rush through to the end. And if, like those garden disciples, or that small child, we fall asleep at the first sign of trouble or discomfort, we miss the love story. We miss the love story that is God’s relationship with this world, in this season, with this people; the revelation, the awakening, the glorious drama of God’s love enacted in our midst.
Last week, a group of pastors and Christians gathered to read scripture to the Senate. As our government discussed their tax plans, these religious leaders read 2,000 verses from the Bible describing God’s determination that the poor should have good news preached to them. That’s a love story.
Earlier this summer, a mob with torches marched towards an Episcopal church in Charlottesville where people of peace had gathered to pray. Surrounded by lit tiki torches, those disciples sang, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine … Jesus gave it to me, I’m going to let it shine.” Few of them slept well that night, but that, too, was a love story.
It’s not always high drama. Many years ago, my grandmother lived on a quiet street opposite a couple called Fred and George. Every morning, as sure as they woke up, Fred and George would look out of their window to see that Dorothy had opened the curtains in her window. They loved their neighbour in the simplest, quietest, most faithful way. The morning that Dorothy’s curtains stayed closed, Fred called her son, and he came to the rescue and picked her up off the floor, and Dorothy’s life was saved, and her son’s heart was moved, awakened by gratitude, turned just a little towards this loving family whom he had found it a little difficult to understand. That, too, is a love story.
Advent is by far and away not the most comforting season of the year. We use its calendars to count it down, count it out, urging resolution, waiting for it to be over, and a new thing begun. There is too much to do, and time seems to have telescoped.
But Emmanuel is not a promise of the future, nor an episode contained by the past. It is the very status and posture of God, to be with us, to be engaged among us, ever present, always present, God with us.
This is a love story, this gospel within which we live and move and have our being.
And here we are, on day one of a new chapter, a new act, with the whole ocean of purple and blue stretched out before us, and we can huddle in the bottom of the boat, and try to sleep through the unpredictable waves and weather, or we can take the hand of the one who loves us the most of all, step out in faith, and walk on water.
This post has been updated to correct a mangled quote.