He Comes to Redeem Us
Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 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.
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:24-37
“In those days … the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
We begin the Season of Advent with these words that Jesus spoke to his disciples as they were strolling past the Temple on a sunny Jerusalem day. They sound ominous, for so they are.
As to Advent, it is important to remember that Advent is not just a season of the church year. Advent seasons are also recurring episodes of life. They come at various points in life, not just the four weeks before Christmas. Is not the world, in this moment, caught in the grip of a profound and seemingly interminable Advent experience? We all stand waiting.
This Advent do not the words of Jesus about destruction come so very close to home? The darkness of death stalks and surrounds us, as thousands of lives come to their end with each passing hour, while thousands more labor and struggle in death’s antechamber. The darkness of the pandemic intensifies, and while there is hope on the horizon that an effective vaccine will, by the middle of next year, be made available to those most at risk, we know that many more will die between now and then.
The disciples had been admiring the temple and the large stones that defined its majestic structure. They were impressed by its magnificence with the sun being reflected in its gilded façade, and they drew a sense of security from its appearance of determined permanence. Jesus, however, tells them that change is coming. The temple is coming down. Not one stone will be left standing upon another.
Until the beginning of 2020 most of us lived with some sense of security, real or imagined, in the structures that have defined our lives. And then it all began to crumble and continues to fall down around us. The economy is in shambles. People are out of work. More and more of our neighbors are both food and housing insecure.
And those who have been charged with protecting and sustaining us, cannot get their act together to do so. They do not want to change the equation that allows the well-healed to reap even greater profits as more and more children go to bed hungry. Early in the week, you know who was bragging that the market has broken new records on his watch; without, in any way, owning the part he has played in the more rapid escalation of poverty and the continuing disenfranchisement of the poor. Yes, the rich grow fatter as the lean grow more and more desperate.
And in our personal lives, have we not all experienced times of significant change whether desired or not? And so, we know what it is like to enter the darkness of a time of change.
All change, whether welcomed or unwanted, brings some kind of loss. It may be the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, the loss of what is comfortable, familiar, or safe. The void occasioned by the loss comes to be filled with uncertainly, ambiguity and unanswered questions. The world as we have known it has ended.
This past week another of my classmates died. John was a deeply loving, kind and gentle giant of a man who had been gifted by God with an amazing capacity to make people laugh. In the seminary many of us would spend some coffee hour time each morning, reveling in the joy that he would ignite in hearts of those gathered around him. He could easily laugh at himself and invited all of us to laugh at ourselves. He created a safe space for us to do that. His death is a big loss for his band of brothers.
A unique light has been extinguished, but the flame that is John continues to burn within our hearts and within the mystery of God.
The Advents of our both our communal and personal lives set before us important questions. How will we find our way forward when the usual lights that illumined our path no longer shine? What do we do when it feels as if our world is falling apart? Where do we go when it seems as if darkness is our only companion and God is nowhere to be seen?
Sisters and brothers, the dark times of life are, in fact, threshold moments. The temptation is always to do something; to fix it, to ease the pain, to escape the uncertainly, and to get back to what used to be.
But the God of Advent does not allow that. We can never go back to the way it was before the lights went out. God does not UNDO our life. God REDEEMS our life. Advent is not so much about the losses as it is about the hope and coming of what will be.
The Covid-19 Advent is a clarion call to create a new normal for a new tomorrow. Martin Luther King reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Change takes a long time, but it does happen. Each of us who works for social change is part of the mosaic of all who work for justice; working together we can accomplish so much. When the beating of our hearts echoes the beating of the drums of justice only them will tomorrow come. Hearts that beat for justice do not just happen. They can only be cultivated both within ourselves and within our children.
Our hope and the coming of what will be is Jesus the Christ. The presence of Christ is the ultimate answer to every prayer, to every light extinguishing loss, to every Advent of our life.
Every time we tell an Advent story of our life, we echo the prophet Isaiah’s cry, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”. And God does. God is faithful. God strengthens us to the end. St. Paul reminds us that, “In the midst of our losses we lack nothing as we await the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ”.
The Advent times of life are times of waiting. They are liminal or threshold times. In Advent we live in between what was and what will be. We are neither here nor there. We are betwixt and between. They are times of transition and it is hard, sometimes even impossible, to see the way forward.
If we allow them to, the dark threshold places of life can draw us deeper into the divine mystery. They remind us that we do not know everything. We do not see all possibilities. We can neither predict nor control anything. We are not in charge. Advent challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, and to question our typical ways of seeing. Advent invites us to receive the God who comes to us in the darkness of life.
At some point our world falls apart, life changes, or the lights go out. More often than not we see this as the end. When these things happen, Jesus says, “Remember the fig tree”. Read the signs correctly. When its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves you know summer is near. So also, when the darkness overtakes your life know that God is near. Christ is present. Our healing and our salvation are always taking place in the dark and messy parts of life.
We have not and never will be abandoned to the darkness. “Be alert,” Jesus warns. He commands us to “Keep awake.” Darkness is not our enemy as much as is falling asleep.
We fall asleep whenever fear controls our life, when hope gives way to despair, when busyness is equated with goodness, when entitlement replaces thanksgiving, when we choose what is comfortable rather than what is life-giving.
Whenever we think our life is over; that darkness is our final reality; that we have been abandoned; or that loss and darkness are our only reality, then we have fallen asleep.
Too often we allow the darkness to deceive us into believing there is nothing worth waiting or watching for. So, we close our eyes. We fall asleep and we become part of the darkness. We refuse to see the God who is always coming to us.
The danger in the darkness is that we do not give our eyes time to adjust. We do not trust our night vision. Night vision is not about the light around us but the light that is within us, a light that can never be extinguished.
The Advents of our lives ask us to trust the God who is coming more than the darkness. It means we must sit, listen, wait, and watch. Yes, we must be patient.
That is contrary to what most of the world believes and what our society rewards. We must show up every moment of our lives, not just in spite of, but, because of the darkness. To show up and be present in the darkness of life is some of the hardest work we will ever do. Run from the darkness and we run from God.
This nation has, in these last several years, even before the pandemic, clearly moved into an Advent time. Darkness indeed covers the land. The culture became defined by disregard and disrespect. Division, hatred and violence have been and remain everywhere in evidence. Racism lays claim to the right to express itself. The telling of lies became the norm.
Greed is clearly on the ascendancy. Congress affected the largest transfer of wealth in this nation’s history, into the coffers of the super-rich at the expense of the common good, the poor and the national deficit. Black Friday saw an all-time high in retail sales even as food lines grew longer.
A sociopathic narcissist has been at the helm of state and promises, even as he is forced to leave office that he will continue to stoke the fires and fan the flames of white supremacy and Christian nationalism, and with his political allies, will attempt to sabotage any efforts to initiate the deep changes that are essential for a new tomorrow.
If he is not locked up, he will continue to imprison the political sycophants and cult members that populate his world.
But in this deep darkness we renew our faith, we reaffirm our trust and we draw life from our hope that it is God who rules, that the demon and his spawn have no future, and that Advent always resolves itself in the saving action of God on our behalf.
In the darkness of Advent, we move slower, we listen more than we speak, we hold questions rather than answers. We wait expectantly but without specific expectations. Waiting in darkness is an act of faithfulness and surrender to the God who comes. Waiting becomes our prayer, a prayer that is and will ever be answered by God’s presence.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 29, 2020