The First Sunday of Advent
1 December 2013
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now on the time of this mortal life in which Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Don't worry.... I'm not going to preach about the Rapture.
Advent calls us to attention. “You know what hour this is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” In that first generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, those earliest Christians lived their lives as if the consummation of God’s kingdom would happen in their lifetime. They thought Jesus would come back in a messianic blaze of glory and topple the powers of the world and usher in the reign of God.
We know, however, that Jesus did not come back right away. We know that the Church became institutionalised and established and we lost some of that sense of urgency, that sense of the imminence of salvation and of the kingdom. Some people kept their focus on the life of the world to come and the coming of the Kingdom and left the cares of this world behind. Others, who thought that the coming of the Kingdom was far off in the future, became heavily invested in the life of this age, neglecting the life of the soul. This dichotomy has helped foster a separation between the spiritual and material aspects of human life and a dualism of body and spirit. It has led some to attend only to daily life and think that the concerns of the spirit—the force of life that lives deep within us, enlivens us, and fills us with the love of God— are something we think about only on Sundays, if at all, and others to attend only to the other worldly.
I think, somehow, that the reality of the coming kingdom and God’s ever imminent ability to become incarnate, demand a better synthesis. As you very well know, I am certainly someone who is invested in the life of this age. This engagement, however, is not one that negates the spiritual aspect of life in favour of the purely materialistic, but rather embodies that detachment about which I have been preaching and that leads us back into the thick of life. I believe in no uncertain terms that it is in the here and now that we encounter the Divine, that it is in our relationships with our brothers and sisters who share our common humanity that we encounter the very love of God. This perspective on the spiritual life—that the spiritual life and life in the world are one—changes how we think about Advent and the in-breaking of God into our present reality.
Personally I am agnostic about when the messiah, the anointed one, will return or what that might look like. I do believe, however, that our God, the God of Love will (and does) come in unexpected forms, in unexpected places, at unexpected times, and, like Jesus, will enter into our world to heal and reconcile us with humility, patience, kindness, compassion, and, above all Love. When God definitively ushers in that subversive Kingdom of Love it will not be in that blaze of martial glory, but in a way that is consonant with God’s ways of justice, love, and peace. Indeed, I think that Isaiah had it right when he wrote that at that time “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” So I believe that while we wait for that day which may or may not come in our lifetime, we are called to care for creation, engage with the things of the world, the material of life, the creatures with which we inhabit our planet, above all with our fellow human beings. This attitude of engagement, therefore, calls for the same level of Advent watchfulness as does waiting for The End.
Indeed, this attitude of engagement constitutes precisely what Saint Paul was telling the Romans, even as they waited for The End: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for [the one] who loves ... neighbour has fulfilled the law. The commandments ... are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” We are called deeply into lives of Love, loving first ourselves and then loving our neighbours and thereby loving God. When Paul calls us to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” he is inviting us to turn towards that work of Love, to clothe ourselves with Love, surround ourselves with Love, Divine Love, Unbounded Love, the Love that does not coerce but that invites, the Love that is exercised with true freedom, the Love that is expressed with vulnerability and risks rejection. Clothed in this armour of light, we are prepared at all times to meet Divine Love when God breaks into our present reality.
God’s love is, in fact, pulsing in and through creation, at all times and in all places. In our City God’s love is pulsing in offices, schools, and shelters, on the 1 train and on the M86 bus, in the doctor’s office and in theatres, in coffee shops and in three star restaurants, in the playground and on the basketball court, in Central and Fort Tryon Parks, in Tompkins and Union Squares. God’s love is present and we are called in this Advent season to be attentive to it, to be ready to greet it at a moment’s notice when and wherever it becomes manifest. This love looks like something different each time and it is expressed in a myriad of ways. It is not always proffered with a flourish and it can and will surprise us. We find it in the exchange with another person, in a flash of connection or warmth, in an act of kindness or respect, in a smile or a nod, in the contemplation of and encounter with nature. It appears not with bangs and puffs of smoke, but in subtle ways to which we need to tune our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds. We do not know the hour or the day when this will happen, but it comes to us and keeps on coming.
We are called to be open to the Love we see expressed in our encounters in the world and to understand them for exactly what they are: incarnations of the Divine into the here and now, incarnations that expand that part of the Kingdom of God that is already present with us. God’s love can become incarnate anywhere, any place, and in any natural occasion. It becomes incarnate in our most intimate encounters and in our most public ones. Advent, then, is the season when we re-calibrate and become more attuned to the breaking of God into Creation, as it happened in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago, as it may happen in a future consummation of all things, and, most importantly for us today, as it happens to us every day, all the time.
We now recognise that Salvation—unity, atonement with the God of Love—is truly closer at hand than when we first believed. Our understanding has matured so that we know and feel that Advent times, times lived in expectation of the in-breaking of Divine Love, make up the better part of our earthly pilgrimage from beginning to end and beyond. The collect for today really got it right in translating our Epistle’s words into a vision of our past, present, and future, a past, present, and future in which God's love clothes us, shields us, empowers us to meet and become one with the Divine:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 29 November 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume