You know, I get excited for Advent every year. Ever since I was a small child, I remember the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve being one of my favorite times of the church year. Even before I knew there were church seasons, I would anticipate Advent.
There’s just something about it — from the change in the weather, to the change in the scripture readings, to the transformation in sight and sound. It all coalesces into something memorable, some that activates a childlike wonder in me.
But as much as I have always loved this season, I always have associated it with the birth of Jesus. It was explained or at least implied that these four Sundays that precede Christmas give time to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity on Christmas Eve.
Imagine my surprise when later in life, I learned that the association between Advent and Christmas was only made 300 years after the Church began observing Advent.
Advent was not initially a time of preparation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Instead it was an annual reminder and time to prepare for Christ’s glorious return, his second coming.
Advent has always had what theologians call an Eschatological focus — eschatology is the study of last things, such as the end of the world, or the eternal rule of God, or God’s work to make all things new, to recreate the world.
And isn’t this what we see in our readings this morning? See how they refocus our attention on the end, on Christ’s return?
- Isaiah laments, calling out to God, asking God to tear open the heavens and come down.
- The Psalmist sings, “Restore us, O God of hosts; *
- show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
- Paul, years after Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, writes to the early church, reminding them that they are waiting for Jesus Christ to be revealed at the end, and that Jesus will strengthen them to be blameless on the day of Jesus Christ, that is, the day Jesus returns.
- And Jesus says in Mark that we will see him coming in the clouds, but that no one knows that day.
So, Advent is working to refocus us, to get us to meditate on the end.
But this prompts some questions, I think.
If Christ is King, the unparalleled ruler of time and space, whose second “coming in clouds” we anticipate, then we very well ask ourselves what it is we expect his return to bring us? What do we want from the return of the King?
Do we anticipate liberation? Are we looking for justice or relief? Are we hoping for comfort or healing? Are we tired and are looking for rest?
Or are we anxious because we expect a harsh judgment or punishment? Do we imagine the Lord to be irritable or capricious? Are we concerned about our own standing before the King?
Many of you probably remember the Lord of the Rings books by JRR Tolkien, or you’ve seen the movies, or you’ve seen enough parodies that you can go with me on this one.
Remember that the last book is called the Return of the King. For many of the characters in that story, especially the protagonists, the King’s return was a welcome event, even a longed-for event. The return of the king meant restoration, justice, and renewal.
For others, however, it was unwelcome because it spelled the end of their power, the end of their little fiefdoms, their arrangements of power, their nefarious dealings, the end of their comforts. It also brought the end of many things that up to that point were as good as they could be. But the good enough had to give way to the better, as difficult as that change might be.
The King’s return be both festive and chastening.
And those that were hoping for the kings return were ready. They were alert, poised in anticipation.
But those that didn’t want the King’s return weren’t ready, and many of them had told themselves that there was no King, that it was a myth, a fairy tale. Being unready for them was as much about having unprepared hearts as it was about having an executive transition plan. Their hearts were not ready, and so they were not ready.
So when we hear in Mark’s gospel that we need to keep awake, it’s not because Mark is promising us that we’ll be on the short end of the return of the King stick. Instead, Mark, as a gospeller, wants us to have a chance and a choice. We have a chance to cultivate our affections and a sense of hope and expectancy for the King’s return.
And we have the choice as to how we’re going to align our lives. Are we actively preparing for the King’s return in our hearts and our minds? Are our families and homes places where the King could return? Are cultivating spaces and communities that are friendly to the King in our little corners of the Kingdom? Can we describe to ourselves how our lives are Kingdom lives?
If you, like me, are struggling to answer those questions this weekend, well, we’re all in luck. St. Paul, our great patron, has not only provided us with the language for answering some of those questions, but he’s also given tools for implementing those answers.
Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is in the business of giving us spiritual gifts, capacities and dispositions that are a lot like habits or skills or virtues. And those gifts aren’t given to us because we deserve them or have earned them. Nor is there a shortage of those gifts. The Spirit gifts them liberally and as often as we ask. And the Spirit does this because we have been called by God into fellowship with Christ. We are now adopted children of the Father. The Father loves us, and is actively working to prepare each of us.
But we have to be ready, we have to prepare our hearts, and this can start with something as simply as saying yes to Jesus, yes to Jesus as Lord, yes to Jesus as your brother, yes to Jesus as the returning King, or even yes to Jesus who sits with you in your struggles.
Pope Francis recently wrote, “Praying and loving, that is what it means to be watchful. When the Church worships God and serves our neighbour, it does not live in the night. However weak and weary, she journeys towards the Lord. Let us now call out to him. Come, Lord Jesus, we need you!”
The risen and ascended Lord will return. Will you prepare with me for his return?