Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Happy New Year! Drop the balloons. Shout hooray. Cue the music. Today is the start of the new year in worship. We move from the end to beginning again. Yet, somehow today feels less like a party. Like when you can’t pay the electric bill. We flip on the lights but we’re in the dark.
Advent begins, not with the pop of a champagne cork, but with lament at the hiddenness of God. It is more impatience than patience. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah pleads (Isaiah 64:1). “Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” cries the Psalmist (Psalm 80:3). In a case of be careful what you wish for, Jesus warns in Mark’s gospel that on the day of the Lord, 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,’ (Mark 13:24).
You might be wondering whether these readings were chosen because of the pandemic. But no, these and others just like them, are what is read every year. The first season of the Christian new year begins with brutal honesty. The world is not as it should be. It is not okay. The morning after frankness of Advent is less of a surprise this year when so many things have disappointed and threatened us at once.
Advent is uncomfortable. But sometimes, rather than rush through our discontent, it is better to sit with our sorrow a while. It is there that wisdom and compassion are born. Our hearts and hands are opened. Lives are reborn.
Impatience with how the world works has led many Christians, in recent years to search apocalyptic readings like these for clues. If the heavens and earth are to be shaken when the Lord comes, we’d sure be pleased to know when. Yet, one thing all end-time predictors have in common is that they’re wrong. The prognosticators all seem to ignore Jesus’ words that no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32).
So, we’re left stewing. Funny thing though, when we turn from trying to locate the end-times on the calendar to watching for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in each other, we can be mostly right. In fact, the moment we stop waiting and watching for Jesus to show up we stop waiting and watching for grace. Jesus called himself the Son of Man. He represents how human beings are truly meant to live, and points to the kinship kingdom that is the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One.
To come out of this pandemic better than we went in, we must let ourselves be touched by others’ pain. We must let our impatience mature into wisdom and compassion, the gifts of Advent. Then we become antibodies to the virus of indifference. Then the true light starts to leak out of us despite ourselves. It is a lamp for our feet and a streetlight for our path. This light has allowed the saints of each generation to make the same great discovery. All Life is a gift. We grow by giving of ourselves, not preserving ourselves, but losing ourselves in service.
Put down your calendar and start looking for Christ’s coming again in your neighbor. This week, the day after Thanksgiving, Pope Francis wrote an editorial which appeared in the New York Times. He wrote, “Sometimes, when you think globally, you can be paralyzed: There are so many places of apparently ceaseless conflict; there’s so much suffering and need. I find it helps to focus on concrete situations: You see faces looking for life and love in the reality of each person, of each people. You see hope written in the story of every nation, glorious because it’s a story of daily struggle, of lives broken in self-sacrifice. So rather than overwhelm you, it invites you to ponder and to respond with hope.” Pope Francis, Pope Francis: “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts,” NYT, 11/26/20)
Advent is so consistent in celebrating the light of Christ precisely because we spend so much of our lives dwelling in the star-less midnight of unknowing and hope. The true light revealed in darkness shines from each other’s eyes. It constantly leaks out and shows itself from underneath, and outside, and from deep within us. This light tirelessly transforms lives and changes history.
I’ll give you an example. Years ago, a teenage boy and his parents, were forced to leave home and work in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The boy took up art to avoid doing heavy labor. He won a competition. His painting of Chairman Mao Zedong was the best. You may remember the artist He Qi. He visited Immanuel about six years ago. One of his prints depicting angels hangs in the church today.
One day, He recalled, he encountered some Christian art on the cover of a magazine. It was Raphael’s Madonna and child. He secretly painted that image over and over again at night. “She was holding baby Jesus in a chair. It really touched my heart,” He Qi said. It was the first Christian image He remembers seeing, and it conveyed a peace he still considers the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. He said, “During the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, every minute people were fighting. Everything was revolutionary. Horrible. It was very difficult to find a peaceful message. So, in the daytime I painted Chairman Mao; in the evening I painted Madonna.”
Advent is about keeping watch for the light God reveals in darkness. Advent opens us for encounter with the coming Christ even in the most unexpected places—even in a baby in the manger. “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” (Frederick Buechner, sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky”)
Advent gives permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. This truth is forged by the Spirit into wisdom and compassion. As we become less afraid of the dark our eyes are better able to see life as it is, and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. We begin to see each other more clearly and to be called into serving Christ through welcoming one another as Christ. Christ coming again and again is the advent worth waiting for, preparing for, watching for. Let the stars begin to fall and the earth tremble.