Some things just won’t get done. Can we just admit that right at the beginning of this build-up to Christmas and save ourselves and our loved ones some strain, stress, argument, and worry? Some things just won’t get ordered, or if ordered, they will come late or not at all because, well, we are in a pandemic. Some traditions won’t be the same, and can we admit to ourselves that it will be okay if we don’t have a Christmas ham this year, or a table for twelve, or carolers singing outside our windows, or Santa at the mall? Can we be okay with seeing meaning and sacrifice in a wrapped gift card instead of something that our relative spent hours looking for on-line? Can we be okay with smaller versions of the bigger things that we have come to expect: instead of a whole lot of bells and whistles, or a complete full-on production, can we appreciate a lovely landscape, a meaningful letter, the taste of jam on burnt toast, or a few minutes of precious listening to our loved ones? We will miss a lot of what we once counted on, but there will still be blessings that we might miss if we are still yearning for things to remain as they once were pre-Covid.
Today is the beginning of Advent and today we turn a new calendar page in the church year. Let’s all take a deep breath and give thanks that we have even made it this far by faith and by sheer luck of circumstance. Let’s all reflect on the fact that it might have been different, that this past year might have been our last, and that we are here – even with all of our preoccupations and ponderings—we are still HERE.
We do not have to wait for January 2021 for a new beginning. Your new beginning starts here and now. Or it begins when you, yourself, decide that a beginning is what you need and want. Advent is a chance for a fresh start and our Advent readings are all about anticipation. Yes, Advent anticipates the birth of Jesus, but it also anticipates a second coming—yes, the second coming of Christ, or – if you are more progressive in your theology—a continual, never-ending coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose presence always tends to disrupt our tidy and exacting plans for how things are supposed to be—not just this time of year, but in any and all times of year.
We begin our Advent with the gospel writer known as Mark and with some heavenly fireworks—not the 4th of July kind—but a darkened sun, celestial shade, falling stars, and the very powers of Heaven shaken. Which is to say that the natural world will reflect unnatural events, a breaking in of the Promised One of God. It is powerful stuff, if you can let yourself believe it. Can you? Can you, for this moment in time, believe that Christ’s coming into your preoccupations and ponderings will change both the nature of those preoccupations and ponderings and you?
Can you, for this moment in time, let go of the control that you are wont to have, that you insist on having? If you can, you might see that we are not entirely in control of our lives, at least, not in the way that we tend to believe. We are bound by time, circumstance, our connections to this planet and to this universe, bound by our communal loves and hates, and bound by our bodies, such as they are and such as we are. We are furiously independent but also intimately and inextricably connected to each other and to God. One ripple sends waves. And one of those ripples is the coming of the Promised One of God– Our gospel writer of Mark was trying to convey that our very universe will reflect the coming of God’s child—and God’s Christ– into the world.
Mark is desperate for us to understand that, while we can know many things, we can not know the time or the place, the day or the hour, when this Son of Man—this Jesus—will come. We say, Dec 25th, but that is really a tradition—just a time that we have agreed to celebrate in an annual way—the tremendous upheaval that God’s child brings. Yet no one really knows when God will show up manifest like ourselves, in humankind. Yes, we shall see glimpses, but we cannot pinpoint – like Santa’s arrival—the arrival of the Promised One, the Jesus who we pray to see in the fullness of time.
Because we can not know the time or the place, the gospel writer urges us to “keep awake.” I must admit that I hear this and want to scream. I am already too hyper-vigilant for my own good. Vigilant means “keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.” Too many of us have been on high alert this year: donning our masks, our gloves, and our hand sanitizer. We are washing hands, keeping 6 feet apart, and quarantining when necessary. We are on high alert for any sneeze or sore throat, cough or lack of smell.
If we have been on high alert, extra-vigilant, then we might understand the wearying vigilance that our black and brown sisters and brothers have had to endure these many centuries. Vigilant when driving, vigilant when bird-watching, vigilant when buying milk at a convenience store, vigilant when jogging, vigilant when crossing the street, vigilant when crossing neighborhoods, vigilant when navigating the judicial system, and vigilant when simply “being themselves.” Given our current state of hyper-vigilance, we might understand our immigrant friends who are fearful of a knock at the door that is not their Lord and Savior, but ISIS, or who are wary of any form that asks for personal info.
We might understand and more readily empathize with our LGBTQI sisters and brothers who must be vigilant in their workplaces, in their public displays of affection, in their schools, and in navigating the health care system.
Suffice to say that our hyper-vigilance of all things Covid related might be just one layer of vigilance to someone with less privilege. Our disabled sisters and brothers have had to be vigilant every time they leave their homes and navigate a public space or public access. And what about those who are and have been on alert for wildfires and the loss of home and place as they know it?
Mark urges us to “keep awake,” but already, so many of us are falling asleep while standing up because we have had to be hyper-vigilant for so, so long. The hyper-vigilant around the world and here at home are already weary and yearning for that blissful sleep in which dreams and nightmares do not disturb. We who are hyper-vigilant are already trying to anticipate the next danger, the next painful ruling, the next disaster, and the next micro-aggression, just so we can protect ourselves and our families.
Yet, even so, we might anticipate Jesus’ coming as a reminder to be vigilant for blessings as well as dangers. We might transform our near constant state of vigilance to the kind of anticipation that one sees in a child’s eyes when greeting a parent who has been away for a long time. It is hard, yes, when our bodies and brains have been trained in self-preservation. We know “fight or flight” and we can anticipate those times when our adrenalin will surely surge and our bodies will refuse to rest because we fear attack.
But can we rest anyway? Can we train ourselves to similarly recognize the signs of blessing on its way? Can we believe that our God “coming to set things to rights” might actually hold opportunity for those of us who have been on high-alert since the beginning of this crisis as well as others? Can we learn the lesson from the fig tree and see that as soon as its branch “becomes tender and puts forth its leaves” we might anticipate a new summer on its way? Yes, winter has barely made its presence known, and I am asking you to visualize a summer of blessing, beauty, and bounty that might seem as fanciful to you right now as a vision of sugarplums dancing in your head. More importantly, I am asking you to imagine a summer even within the winter at hand, or better yet, see the winter in a new light—drenched in love, warmed with kindness, and filled with surprises that are not out “to get the better of you and yours.”
Advent is not decoration for Christmas and neither are you. This moment—in all of its beauty, abundance, difficulty, and travail—will not happen again. Are we awake to it? Or rather, are we so hyper-vigilant for the dangers, destruction, and disintegration of things that we do not recognize or see the grace given us in this – THIS—moment?
Perhaps you, like me, have been actively seeking out articles offering helpful advice and the many different ways to live in uncertainty such as we are experiencing without shutting down or shutting out everything and everyone. One of the things that I read that stuck with me is this: to find something everyday to look forward to—without fail. Perhaps it is your morning walk, or a late afternoon nap, or a consistent phone call to a friend. Perhaps it is dressing up for the day, wearing the kind of perfume or cologne one might save for a special event, or setting your table with the good dishes. Maybe it is doing one thing “new” each day or taking a different route home from work. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to look forward to something each day.
The second piece of advice that I read was to try to create something each day. Nothing fancy or big or complicated. Nothing to stress you out. Maybe you create a special spot in your home that features beloved objects on display. Maybe you try a new recipe, a crossword puzzle, or a winter window garden. Maybe you create a scrapbook of these Covid times or a photo collage. Whatever it is, you create it for the act of creating itself. Maybe you share it and maybe not. It doesn’t matter. It’s the act of creating that God has given us and, in creating something, you become co-creator with God, herself.
And the last piece of advice that I remember was to give something away each day—intentionally. Maybe it is an object. But more likely, it is something intangible. Your time. Your attention. Your memories. Your “yes” and even your thoughtful, “no.” Give something of yourself away. It may be a book, a bag of goodies, or your best manners. Give without a thought of return. Give because it feels good to give and you are alive and can make choices about giving.
Anticipate one thing, create one thing, and give away one thing—daily and intentionally. See the ways in which your hyper-vigilance changes and shifts. Anticipate blessing.
In doing so, you may find that the coming of the Promised One is not terribly far from you, but close at hand.
Happy Advent, friends.
God is near.