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Monday, November 29, 2010

"About that day and hour no one knows..."

Advent 1, Yr. A
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
11/28/10

I am, by nature, a planner. I make lists, I devise charts, I love check off boxes, I have spreadsheets with years’ worth of data for future reference, and I keep my calendar in 4 different colors. As my family and my colleagues will confirm, sometimes it’s amazing I accomplish anything because I’m so occupied simply with organizing and planning that I don’t get to the actual execution of the project. On the flip side, I’m not all that enthusiastic about most surprises; I like to know when something is going to happen, how it’s going to unfold, and what I need to do to be prepared for it.

The season of Advent fits nicely with my inclinations, which probably explains part of why it’s pretty much my favorite time in the church year. We neatly count down the days with Advent calendars as we open each door—even if they bug me a bit because they really are December 1st to 25th calendars, not Advent strictly speaking—and we count up the weeks as we light the candles on our wreath. I have a clear mental list of things to be done, from purchasing a wreath from the Altar Guild sale to making sure the stockings, each one filled with memories, are hung over the fireplace. Commercial establishments are more than happy to assist me in the process, reminding me at every turn how many shopping days remain. It’s an orderly and predictable march toward Christmas.

Except that it isn’t. That’s a primary thrust of today’s gospel: "But about that day and hour no one knows…for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." The first lesson offers no more than a vague "In days to come…"; the reading from Romans conveys an urgency about now being the moment to wake from sleep, but still with no way to check what time the alarm is set for. We may be able to mark off the calendar days until we celebrate Christ’s first coming, but we’re absolutely, utterly clueless about the timing of his second coming, his return in glory to restore the kingdom of God. And when we gloss over that Advent theme, we’ve missed half the meaning of the season.

The Christmas birth in which we rejoice is the beginning of the revelation of the first fruits of God’s new creation. God becomes flesh and lives among us, showing humanity up close God’s way of mercy, justice, and love, of dying and defeating death in the resurrection. If it all ended there, it would be a fabulous, wonderful start without a finish, like an arrow arcing through the sky and then, at its peak, suddenly dropping out of the air rather than finishing its trajectory. The fullness of God’s path is toward the redemption and renewal of all creation and all time in Christ’s second coming.

The average Episcopalian doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this. We celebrate our past and the riches of our heritage, we embrace the present and the tasks to which God is calling us, we hope for the future joys of heaven for all who die to this world…but we simply don’t do much discussing the last days, even though the topic comes up every. single. year. in Advent.

I’d guess one of the reasons for this is right back to my original problem: it’s really tough to plan and maintain anticipation for something that keeps not happening! 16 years ago this weekend, I was in early labor. By late on Saturday night, I had asked a lay person in the congregation to lead Morning Prayer the next day, because I was pretty sure I’d be in the hospital. Our families knew, the congregation knew, our friends knew, even the guy putting in the new sprinkler system at our house knew. And when Sunday morning rolled around, I was still in early labor. When Sunday night came, I was still in early labor. Ditto for Monday and Monday night…early labor. We all knew this baby was bound to come eventually, and the sense of barely contained anticipation persisted for me and for Tom, but I think some of the other folks might’ve been a teeny bit less on edge; it was, understandably, hard for them to sustain their excitement. Those couple of long days of waiting—and yes, he did come, on Tuesday afternoon—help me set in perspective the millennia over which the Church has been in early labor, waiting for Jesus to return and having it not happen yet.

How am I supposed to know and to keep caring if I’m on track if I don’t have a target date? Maybe the answer is that I don’t have a date, but I do have a target. First, though, a word about where I’m not aiming. A vast quantity of literary last-days sagas have caused people to focus on gospel images like today’s, of two people working side by side when one is suddenly snatched up in the rapture and the other is left behind. I think most of us don’t know exactly to make of those passages, which probably becomes another reason why we avoid talking about the end of time. In a nutshell, my reading is that those parts are there to convey the urgency and necessity of our paying attention to the demands of the gospel, not to terrify us into praying that we’re among the chosen or to cause us to speculate who isn’t.

So what then is the target, one that can inspire us sufficiently to keep our hearts longing and our minds seeking for that gospel truth, even without knowing when its fullness will be revealed? Well, on that day, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and we shall not study war anymore. We’ll learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path. We’ll find true peace in the new Jerusalem, and we will seek good. We’ll put on the Lord Jesus Christ, wrapping ourselves in his Spirit like an armor of light. Those are powerful and potent visions of God’s new kingdom, and they give us a direction in which we can head with hopefulness, even as they beckon us to maintain our sense of anticipation.

The good part about not knowing when Christ will return is that, at my best, it keeps me on my toes. Did I mention the other side of my list-making, organizing ways...that I’m prone to procrastination? Just as the gospel suggests, if I knew when to be ready, I would be, but probably just barely. This way, the motivation to be prepared is more compelling, because I have no countdown timer to give me a deadline.

Every Advent I’m presented with a warning and an opportunity to renew my commitment to living each day in the expectation that Jesus could show up at any moment: boldly living in a manner that reveals God’s justice, living in a way that reflects God’s love, living with the purpose of restoring God’s peace. And if that feels like living on the edge, then I’m probably on the right track, because there’s nothing safe and nothing tame about the end of time. When that day comes, the calendars run out, there’s no more making lists and checking them twice, every illusion burns away, and all the future is present. What remains will be no little baby in a manger, but the wildly magnificent presence of our Savior Jesus Christ, and ourselves in his light and glory.

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