First Advent (RCL C) Luke 21: 25-36
It always seems to catch me a bit by surprise, perhaps because the observance of the Thanksgiving holiday has its own themes and textures, but once again, and with much affection, I would begin this morning by wishing you a Happy New Year!
We note of course the disconnect with the secular and calendar cycle—but perhaps that’s good, as a way to allow us the enjoyment of the great patterns of the Christian year without needing to add on the festivities of Times Square and the dance music of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.
Auld Lang Syne, and Advent Sunday. Beginning the morning with what I always think of as the high water mark of Anglican liturgical composition, Archbishop Cranmer’s Advent Collect: Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility. That we would set out into this new year of our lives and every year and every day of our lives grounded securely in the power of the Incarnation. Protected and equipped and sent forth in the bright light of the Dayspring from on High.
God in man, made manifest. Not just a midnight miracle two thousand years ago in Royal David’s City and the Bethlehem Manger, but a continuing and sustaining miracle and reality of our lives. The meaning of this day, Advent Sunday, and the hope that shapes our future.
In the three-year cycle of our lectionary we move from Year B, with readings mostly from St. Mark, and into Year C, a year in which our gospel readings will be drawn primarily from St. Luke. In some ways the most literary and sophisticated of the gospels—as we will enjoy especially in the first months with the wonderful nativity stories and poetic highlights like Zechariah’s Benedictus and Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis--and certainly the story of Bethlehem and Shepherds and Angels and the Newborn in the Manger.
And so we begin this morning, with this reading from the 21st Chapter of Luke. And I know that for those who aren’t familiar with the thematic pattern of the Christian year and even for those of us who are, it seems a little surprising to begin a new year with a passage like this. Not the beginning of the story, but the end. The signs of the Great Conclusion, the Second Coming of the Son of Man, the “passing away” of what is now for us both heaven and earth. The Great Reboot.
We have the wonderful pattern of our Advent Wreath, with the lovely Candles. But from ancient times the weeks of this season have been defined not by the tender unfolding of the Christmas story, but instead by what are called traditionally the “Four Last Things”—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Certainly the outline of a preaching series guaranteed to excite the holiday spirit! Sleigh bells and snowflakes.
In any case, a point of pretty dramatic contrast and tension in our lives as Christians during this season, with the word from St. Paul in the 12th chapter of Romans perhaps always churning away in us. “And be not conformed to this world.”
The point not to be a Scrooge, with a “Bah, Humbug” to the festivities of this time of year. (Christmas lights and trees already in place in our house, actually.) But at the same time, not to be swept up and away in a cloud of intoxication and denial. The old National Council of Churches used to have billboards calling us to remember “the Reason for the Season.” But that’s the word not just for this month between Thanksgiving and Christmas Morning. As they say in the 12 Step movement: “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Again from Romans 12: “And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Not to say that this grand vision of the sweeping power of God in the restoration of all creation, the shaking of heaven and earth to the foundations as Jesus comes again with power and great glory, is intended to keep us either from the simple beauty of the Christmas story or from the customs and traditions that are meaningful to us in the celebration of the season. Good Christian friends, rejoice and sing, now is the triumph of our King. That’s Easter, but again: getting past the superficialities to the heart of things. The “Reason for the Season.”
But for us under all that and around all that and above all that to remember what the point of the story is, the ground and foundation of the joy of this season, which is the great promise of transformation and renewal, life eternal, and new creation.
What is he doing in our lives today? The good thing above all good things that God intends to do, that God is doing right now, in our midst, in the mystery of Christ’s body. Born in Bethlehem, crucified on Good Friday, raised up at Easter, living with us and in us. All one sacred moment. We breathe it in and breathe it out. On his calendar, not ours. The food and drink of the banquet table of the kingdom. The Bread of our Life, the Cup of our Salvation.
We see the leaves on the trees and we know that summer is near. We hold out our hands to receive the gift. We open the eyes of our hearts, the eyes of our faith, and we know that he is near. Come, thou long expected Jesus.
Blessings, and the joy and peace and all best of this season, and, again—Happy New Year!