There Will Be Signs
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs,” Jesus said.
When I was a child it was always a special treat to have an Advent calendar. The calendar was a picture of the Nativity scene that had a bunch of little numbered doors, one for each day of Advent.
Each day I would open one of those little doors on the calendar. Behind the door was a Bible verse, part of the Christmas story, or a piece of chocolate. The opening of each door was a sign that that Christmas was getting closer. We were counting down the days. That’s what Advent was all about.
Advent was a time of expectation, anticipation and excitement.
Yes, it meant that the celebration of the birth of Jesus was approaching, but it also meant food, presents and Santa Claus.
Then something happened. Somewhere along the way, life got really real and Advent changed. Advent was no longer just the countdown season before Christmas. Instead it began to describe the reality of my own life and world.
The gospel texts about the destruction of the temple, war, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and betrayals took on new and often personal meanings.
Advent became a season of change, letting go, and looking into a future that was not yet clear or known. I am not exactly sure when it began or how it happened but I know it did. All the signs were there.
It might have been anyone of those moments when I ran up against the wall of my own limitations, vulnerabilities, and mortality. Yes, I could fail and in moments I have failed, and yes, my body is breaking down and yes, I am going to die.
It might have been that night I sat with the realization that I had everything I thought I had every wanted and realized that I wanted something yet, that was now beyond my reach. I had always wanted to be a priest, but I realized soon after my ordination that I did not want the life of a celibate Roman priest. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been the ending of my first marriage and the distress associated with that. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been when I learned that my blood chemistry is such that it causes life threatening clots to form, or learned that my heart was compromised and needed the support of a pacemaker, or learned the my lungs are permanently damaged, such that, since 2006, I live with daily reminders that my death will be sooner rather than later. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been one too many pictures of another drowned Syrian refugee. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been listening to the news of yet another mass shooting at a school or a house of worship and knowing there will be yet another vigil and moment of silence brought about by violence. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been this week’s images of asylum seekers trying to cross the border, and so many women and children being gassed by our government as they made efforts to find d sanctuary and safety. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been waking up with the world each morning of the past two years and wondering, What’s next? Where will it happen? When will it take place? “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been any one of these, all of them, or a thousand other things just like them. These are just a few of my Advent stories, stories about how my life has been changed and the world as I had known it ended.
What are your Advent stories? I am sure you have some. I am sure you can tell stories about the day your life changed and your world ended. I am sure you have lived thru seasons of change, letting go, and stepping into an uncertain future, maybe even a future you did not want.
I sometimes wish Advent was as simple and easy as opening a little door on the calendar, eating a piece of chocolate, and knowing that Christmas is one day closer.
But it’s not. You and I both know that the world is not that simple and life is not that easy. Maybe that’s why every year on this day, the First Sunday in Advent, we always hear a gospel that seems to describe the end of the world and the signs that will accompany that ending.
This is not just a story about Jesus and his disciples. This is your story and my story. We experience it in our lives. We see it in our world. And today the Church declares it to be the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“There will be signs,” Jesus said. More then ever our world needs to see the signs. The longer I live, the more I see and experience, the more I realize how necessary those signs are. I want to be reminded that the signs are there.
Every Advent story is accompanied by signs. Jesus says that if we look we will see the signs everywhere; in the sun, the moon, the stars; in the distress of the earth’s nations; and in the roaring of the sea and its waves.
I certainly see the signs in my own life. I can see them today:
in the pictures of refugees and
in the escalation in the world’s violence,
in the unchallenged murder of a journalist,
the election of an overtly racist senator,
the prospect of a pardon for an unrepentant and arrogant public menace, and
the denial of the science of climate change.
I have no doubt that you’ve seen the signs too, in your life and in your world. They are everywhere and they are not hard to spot. They are however too easily and quickly misunderstood and misused.
“There will be signs,” are, in fact, words of hope and reassurance, but far too often they are heard as words of warning and threat. And when they are, the signs are used to predict a future of impending doom and loss.
They become indicators that the world will end and you had better shape up or God is going to get you. Our misunderstanding of the signs pushes us further into the darkness and deeper into our fear. Our misuse of the signs blinds us to the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory.
“There will be signs,” are not Jesus’ words of warning and threat. Jesus does not ask us to predict the future. He never says that these are the signs that the end of the world has come. He says that when we see the signs we are to stand up, raise our heads, and know that help is on the way; our redemption, our healing, our Savior have drawn near.
The signs are not a reason to hang our head in despair or shrink back from life. That we can see the signs in our lives and world means that the circumstances we face and the events that happen contain and reveal the promise of Christ’s coming. The signs are our hope and reassurance that God has not abandoned us, but that God notices us, that God cares, comes to, and participates in our life’s circumstances.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree teaches us how to read the signs. The Advent signs are as ordinary and common as a fig tree sprouting leaves and we know that something is happening. Summer is already near. It’s a new season, with new life, new growth, and new fruit.
That is the promise and good news of the Advent signs. And yet that promise, that good news, is fulfilled not apart from, but in and through the reality our of life’s circumstances and our world’s events, no matter how difficult or tragic they may be.
So what if we looked at our lives and our world and we began to read and understand that the Advent signs in our Advent stories are sprouting leaves? What would we see? What would it mean?
It would mean that the Kingdom of God is near.
It would mean that we are entering a new season.
We would see new life and new growth – yes, even as we face the certainly of our own impending death.
We would produce new fruit.
We would open the doors of our life with new courage and confidence.
We would look on the world with a new sense of compassion and hope.
We would be strengthened to do the work that God has given us to do.
Yes, the Advent seasons of our lives can be long, difficult, and painful.
But we never face those seasons without the signs of hope and reassurance, signs that point to the One who is coming.
Fr. Frank Alagna
December 2, 2018