Monday, December 01, 2014

1st Sunday of Advent 2014: Anticipation

Mark 13:24-37

"Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe. We cannot imagine a Second Coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news."  John Updike, American novelist

"Of that day and hour no one knows; not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father."

Advent is always a tricky time for the Church.  Or maybe it's just me; torn between what I have been "conditioned" to, and what I must truly learn to anticipate by the way I live and love beyond a single day.  Most within the Church - including many clergy - see Advent as little more than a countdown to Christmas.  Few want to hear about the coming Day of the Lord and our constant need to reflect and repent, to "walk circumspectly" (Eph 5:15); that is, taking nothing for granted and discerning the difference between what is holy and what is common - and always choosing the holy. 

That Day of the Lord sounds foreboding, ominous, because it will be the Day of Judgment when the world as we have come to know, the world we have created for ourselves, will no longer exist and all will be called to account for their lives before the Throne.  We cannot reasonably conceive of what this Day will look like anymore than we can know when it will come, so we don't give it much thought.  Besides, it's been 2000 years since we were told of this Day.

The countdown to Christmas, on the other hand, is easy.  It has its special place on the calendar and in our hearts and minds, and we can see it coming from a mile away.  We can plan for it to be as grand or as simple as we choose.  Where can the real joy of anticipation be, however, if we already know what it will look like, how it will turn out, and how it will end?  There is no faith in that, and our lives are nothing if not regulated and governed and sustained by faith.  As it is written, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). 

What are we really so excited about that we cannot be as excited at just about any other time, on any other day?  We can "do" Christmas anytime we want to because that Spirit must never be so contained.  In fact we should spend more time in the Christmas spirit than only in December - but not in the way retailers would wish!  The Christmas Spirit is evangelistic by its very nature!  We have a story to tell as the shepherds did and a commission to tell it!

The birth of Messiah, the Incarnation of the Word (more theological than historical), is worthy of celebration and commemoration; there is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of the Messiah even if we do not know exactly what day He was born on.  I submit to you, however, that this is not what we do.  We actually do anything but. 

As a consequence of our neglect of the very nature of this Feast of the Incarnation, the ones who need to know and learn about Christ - especially our children - know much more about Santa than they do about Jesus (assuming they know anything about Jesus at all).  With our encouragement, they spend much more time and expend much more energy during the Advent season making their wish lists and watching their P's & Q's - because this is what we teach them to do!  This is what we talk to them about.

Should we not think it strange that we teach our children about being good for the sake of Santa more than we deliberately teach them about doing good with justice and mercy for the sake of our Lord?  We have even tried to make Santa the Incarnation of Jesus!

This is a profound failure on the part of the collective Church because it is a certainty of the Revelation that we will all see Jesus long before we will ever see Santa.  We cannot blame the school system because it is not their fault.  We do not send our children to public schools to learn about Christ and His Church.  That's our job as parents and as members of the Body of Christ.

John Updike had it right.  Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe.  As I shared a couple of weeks ago, however, there is not "just one thing" to be blamed nor one person.  It has been a series of "things" and the social conditioning of many Church leaders - and the faithful - who have over a period of time allowed the focus in worship to shift away from Divine revelation and more toward self-satisfaction.  We do not want to be informed.  We want to be entertained or affirmed in what we think we already know.  We're much more comfortable with a known past than we are with an unknown future.

Like the fictional character "Ricky Bobby" from the comedy movie "Talladega Nights", we are much more inclined to favor "dear Lord baby Jesus in His golden fleece diapers" than with the grown up Jesus who tried to teach the faithful about the Kingdom of Heaven and the certainty of the Judgment - and was abandoned by His friends and murdered for His efforts.  Of course the "Judgment" Jesus who is to come hardly gets honorable mention - as if He was never raised from the grave.

Funny story (not "ha ha" funny but incredibly ironic).  A pastor colleague was berated by members of his church after a particular Sunday sermon; long story short, he was accused of being "too liberal" in going well off the biblical "charts".  Toward the end of the year, however, he was all but lynched because he did not allow what had become for them the traditional "Santa Sunday" during Advent. 

Traditions that have nothing to do with Christ and the mission of the Church, you see, have found a much more prominent role in our family holiday planning than has The Lord.  He has become, for too many of us, an afterthought.

I doubt there are many among us who can escape this indictment.  I certainly cannot; but we must also not succumb to it, either, as has become our practice.  There is something almost magical about watching small children on Christmas morning.  I remember very well the delight and joy of my own children on Christmas morning.  Even now I get more joy in watching my family open their gifts than I do in opening my own - especially if I manage to surprise them.  To me, and I think like most of you, there is no greater joy than to bring joy especially to those whom we love.

Learning to manifest and project that joy outwardly is going to be our key to finding - or rediscovering - the HOPE that is The Incarnation AND the anticipation of what is to come because The Word became flesh; not merely that Jesus was born!  Because of all we put into our Christmas celebrations, there will be that glow of a wonderful day spent with family and friends - but the glow will inevitably fade.  By its very nature it cannot endure because our traditions have a beginning, an origin.  All things that begin with human endeavor, then, will always have an ending.

The great "I AM", however, has no beginning as we understand what it means to "begin".  The Word which became flesh was with The Lord "in the beginning"; that is, the beginning of creation and of our concept of time.  The Human Race has a beginning, and thus will have an ending ("To dust you shall return"). 

Not so with our God and Father nor with The Word by which creation was "spoken" into being; The Word which became flesh only in that brief moment in human history - yet The Word which was "in the beginning" will always be even as "heaven and earth will pass away" (Mark 13:31).

By virtue of our calendar of finite time, the season of Advent does "count us down" to what could be a Glorious Day worthy of celebration for the right reasons; but the Promise of Eternal Life in the everlasting Kingdom calls us to look "upward" and beyond that Day!

It is there where we will find Christ our everlasting Hope.  There we will find our true joy in anticipation of that Day when evil and suffering and tears of sadness and pain will be no more.  It is the perpetual prayer of The Church, "Thy Kingdom come".  It is the Kingdom of Heaven; the world without end where there will be "no more sorrow".  Thus do we pray and so do we sing, "O come, O come, Emmanuel".  To the glory of our Holy Father, Amen.

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