Monday, November 28, 2005

Keep Awake!

The root of Advent is in revelation, which is to say apocalypse; and also in parousia, the anticipation of the Reign of Christ. Which is why some churches observe "Reign of Christ" Sunday on the last Sunday of Pentecost, the Sunday before the First Sunday of Advent. And why the German tradition includes a "Tötenfest" on that day, honoring those who have died in Christ in the last liturgical year, as they prepare to turn toward the beginning of the next liturgical year, which begins not with a whimper, but with a bang. The bang of the apocalypse.

Today begins Year "B" on the Lectionary cycle, and it opens with two of my favorite scripture passages:

Isaiah 64:1-9

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

64:7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37

13:24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Luke turns that fearful vision into a joke, but the command is the same, and it has become a traditional one for Advent: "Wachet Auf!" Keep awake! The plea from the prophet Isaiah for a visible sign from the invisible God is less well known, but deserves to be just as familiar.

The reference here is to Elijah, and the priests of Ba'al. The priests set up a pyre and doused it with oild, and prayed all day for Ba'al to set it afire. With one request, Elijah's pyre, which was doused with water until the wood was soaked, was set alight. In the last chapter of the collection of writings of the three Isaiahs, the prophet is longing for a positive sign like that, an assurance that God hears; and that God has not abandoned Israel.

Advent began as a season of preparation, and the reasonable preparation for the coming of the king was penance and repentance. The Christian story, after all, began with the kerygma of John the Baptizer: repent! It was a penitential season, a "mini-Lent," in which the hearts of the believers were prepared for the birth of the Messiah not with presents and cakes and cookies, but with fasting and confession and penance. The priest this morning said the old themes for the four Sundays were sin, death, heaven, and hell. There is more reference to the passage from Mark to doom and apocalypse as we commonly understand the term (a cataclysmic end to all things). But Advent is, and always has been, a curious kind of preparation.

Lent, after all, is a preparation for death, and the longed for resurrection. It is another season of the already done but not yet now; but, oddly enough, on a less cosmic scale. Advent is a preparation for birth, but it is also the story of the coming of the Creator of the Universe. It is a kind of resetting of the clock to a time before Messiah, a time when the longing expectation was not yet fulfilled. And, of course, even now the expectation is still "now but not yet." The parousia is still waited on by Christians, even as they proclaim the kingdom of God is here and now, is present and at hand. The kingdom is both present and not yet. The parousia has both come, and is coming, and is still awaited. More than any other season, Advent returns us to this central paradox. It simultaneously looks forward to what has already come, and also to what has not yet come. It is completeness and incompleteness, together.

Advent is the one time the church tries to capture the eternal, in the temporary. To gather together that which was, and is, and is not-yet, and hold it still, and look back on it, while still anticipating it. And it opens with a cry that is both already answered, and not yet answered today: "O, that you would eah open the heavens and come down!" And yet it is still coming, because we have the commandment: Keep awake!

For four weeks, we will be caught between this knowing about what is already history, and waiting for what has not yet come.

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