FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” Romans 13:11-12.
“Wake up, people.” That cry came from an angry teen at a recent forum on climate change. I think that young man was expressing the frustration so many of his generation feel watching the devastating effects of climate change in so many parts of the world as we “adults” remain in denial. Jesus uses “sleep” as a metaphor for denial in our gospel lesson and he warns his disciples that it is not their friend. Denial takes many forms. We are of, course, familiar with those who, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, insist that climate change is a “hoax.” Similar claims are made by fringe elements about the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook shootings. But denial often takes a more subtle form. Sure, climate change is real, but it’s not an immediate concern. Of course, the murder of six million Jews in Europe happened-but that was in the past. Antisemitism isn’t a real threat anymore. So, too, for decades we white Americans consoled ourselves with the belief that racism belonged solely to America’s past and that the election of Barack Obama was proof. The surge of racial hate and nationalistic fanaticism that brought Donald J. Trump to the White House has, I hope, dispelled that notion and caused us to “wake up” to the corrosive effect of these dangerous ideologies at work in government, the workplace and even in our churches.
In our second lesson, Saint Paul exhorts the church in Rome to “wake up,” but for an entirely different reason. His wake up call is made, not to warn the church of impending danger, but to alert it to the glad news of impending salvation. “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,” the apostle declares. His call to wakefulness implores his hearers not to become distracted, not to grow weary with waiting and not to forget that, however deep the darkness, they are to live as though the day of resurrection has already arrived. This is not merely another form of denial. The dangers and temptations of the darkness are very real. The world as we know it is falling apart at the seams just now. It may be too late to avoid many of devastating consequences of our ecological irresponsibility. Our nation’s government and the democratic practices and traditions that once sustained it may be damaged beyond repair. The resurgence of overt racism in our country might have made its eradication the work of many generations to come. These are the undeniable realities. But Jesus would remind us that, in addition to being the death rattle of the old creation, these things are also to be understood as the birth pangs of the new. In the midst of what looks for all the world like death, God is at work bringing forth life.
At least for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the church calendar begins during the darkest part of the year. As I look out the window into my back yard, I don’t see a spot of green. Everything looks dead. The weather is dark and rainy. There isn’t much evidence of life. If I had not seen it happen every single year of my life, I would never believe that in five short months the dead underbrush will be producing slivers of green, then multi-colored blossoms and finally lush, emerald hued leaves. If I were a visitor from some other world, I wouldn’t anticipate the population of this acre with butterflies, dragon flies and birds of every color and description. The coming of spring strikes me as natural and expected only because I have seen it repeatedly. Indeed, it would be remarkable were spring not to come.
Advent is all about hope. It is the beginning of a journey through holy narratives that will teach our hearts to expect the remarkable transformation of creation from death into life. This pilgrimage will train our eyes to look for the day when the nations “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks [and] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2: 4. Understand that by hope I do not mean mere optimism or a dogged determination to “look on the bright side” even when there is no bright side. Hope is grounded in Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrection, of which Jesus is the “first fruits,” is the end of creation. It is the end, not merely in the sense that it ends the reign of death, but in the sense that it reveals the end toward which creation is moving. Jesus’ resurrection is the future pushing into the present, the light by which it is possible to look into the present darkness and find even there the seeds of life that is eternal.
Understood in this way, Jesus’ resurrection renders moot the question of when the end will come. It came on Easter morning when Jesus rose from the tomb. It comes today when the resurrected Christ opens the scriptures to us and sets our hearts on fire. It comes when on playgrounds, in churches, across borders, on the streets and within families the divisive powers of racism, tribalism, nationalism and patriarchy come down in some small way. The end comes when the people of God, chosen out of every tribe, nation and tongue, worship the Lamb as one in the creation made new. That’s not something you want to sleep through!
Here’s a poem by Joanna Klink speaking about the fragility and resilience of hope.
Half Omen Half Hope
When everything finally has been wrecked and further shipwrecked,
When their most ardent dream has been made hollow and unrecognizable,
They will feel inside their limbs the missing shade of blue that lingers
Against hills in the cooler hours before dark, and the moss at the foot of the forest
When green starts to leave it. What they take into their privacy (half of his embrace,
Her violence at play) are shadows of acts which have no farewells in them.
Moons unearth them. And when, in their separate dwellings, their bodies
Feel the next season come, they no longer have anyone to whom
To tell it. Clouds of reverie pass outside the window and a strange emptiness
Peers back in. If they love, it is solely to be adored, it is to scatter and gather
Themselves like hard seeds in a field made fallow by a fire someone years ago set.
In the quiet woods, from the highest trees, there is always something
Weightless falling; and he, who must realize that certain losses are irreparable,
Tells himself at night, before the darkest mirror, that vision keeps him whole.
On the verge of warm and simple sleep they tell themselves certain loves
Are like sheets of dark water, or ice forests, or husks of ships. To stop a thing
Such as this would be to halve a sound that travels out from a silent person’s
Thoughts. The imprint they make on each other’s bodies is worth any pain
They may have caused. Quiet falls around them. And when she reaches
For him the air greens like underwater light and the well-waters drop.
They will see again the shadows of insects.
They will touch the bark and feel each age of the tree fly undisturbed
Into them. If what is no longer present in them cannot be restored,
It can at least be offered. Through long bewildered dusks, stalks grow;
Rains fill and pass out of clouds; animals hover at the edges of fields
With eyes like black pools. For nothing cannot be transformed;
Pleasure and failure feed each other daily. Do not think any breeze,
Any grain of light, shall be withheld. All the stars will sail out for them.
Source: Raptus. (c. 2010 by Joanna Klink, pub. by Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), LLC.) Joanna Klink (b. 1969) is an American poet. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, she received an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She earned her Ph.D. in Humanities from Johns Hopkins University. Her awards and associations include the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award; the Briggs-Copeland Poet from Harvard University; the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Award; the Civitella Ranieri; the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship; and The Bogliasco Foundation. Klink has published several collections of poetry, including They Are Sleeping; Circadian; Raptus (from which the above poem is taken) and Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy. She is currently a member of the poetry faculty at The University of Montana. You can find out more about Joanna Klink and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.