Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Tensions

With the beginning of Advent, we enter a time of preparation. More, we enter a time of waiting. Superficially, we are awaiting the celebration of birth of Jesus. Historically and doctrinally, this is a far less important event than the passion narrative; modern and contemporary thought had given it more weight than the church has, historically speaking. Two hundred years ago, Schleiermacher used a family Christmas gathering as the backdrop for a dialogue on the incarnation, which at least introduces the not-unimportant point that for Jesus to have suffered and died and risen, he had, at first, to become flesh, to be born.

More than awaiting the celebration of Jesus' birth, we who live between the times are to look not just backwards in remembrance. We are to look forward in anticipation. More than that - in hope. We have been offered a promise, the promise that Christ will return, that God's final triumph over sin and death will come (there is enough equivocation on details to leave them, at the moment, to one side). When we sing, as most western Christians will today, "O Come, O Come, Immanuel", we are not just joining an old monastic antiphonal chorus. We are praying for the coming again of Christ. We are often reminded, in Scripture lessons, that our waiting is to be more than some emotional preparation. It is to be a way of life. Metaphors of the sentry and wall guard, of constant vigilance are employed by Jesus to speak of how the Church is to wait.

In Luke 2:25-38, we read of two very different people, Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Simeon had been promised in a vision not to die before seeing the Messiah; Anna spent her time in the Temple, fasting and praying, and after she encountered the Holy Family, she told everyone she saw that she had seen the salvation of Israel.

I think of this story when I consider "waiting" as part of the Christian virtues. Both were old; Anna's age is given as 84, even now not exactly young. I have a greater appreciation for the possibility that, having achieved a certain age in life, death is no longer understood as an enemy, but a welcome respite from the round of days, the pains and aches both physical and emotional that a long life can visit upon us. Waiting in the midst of the mixture of sorrow and exhaustion can lead to despair.

What happens next? Nothing notable. Parents bring an offering, as dictated by Scripture, the infant in tow, and pass by Simeon. I don't know about anyone else, but I have seen enough week-old-babies to know that it is difficult to discern much more than either sleepiness, hunger, or that wide-eyed wakefulness as the baby tries to figure out how to use these things called "eyes" in this new thing called "light". Beyond that, nothing special. Yet, Simeon, watching as the couple passed, most likely in the hustle and bustle that was the daily round at the Temple, saw in this infant the fulfillment of the promise made to him so long before. His prayer, "Let now your servant depart in peace," is also part of Advent liturgy. We have no words from Anna, just a report that she, too, told all she saw that she had seen the hope for Israel.

We need to wait in the midst of our living for the most unexpected thing to occur. My guess, since it is all I have, is that whatever we think may mark the coming again of Jesus probably has nothing at all to do with what will transpire. The testimony of Scripture is nothing if not clear on this point - God's acts in human history are far more subtle than we would wish them to be. A shepherd boy defeats the champion warrior of a vicious enemy; a man is told by God to marry a prostitute as an object lesson for Israel; build a boat; head to Egypt; the King of Persia is anointed as a Savior of the captive people in Babylon. We have listened far too long to the voices that insist it will be loud trumpets and some kind of cataclysm that we forget the lessons of the Bible - God doesn't work that way.

So, we wait. Like Simeon, we the Church have grown old holding the promise of the coming of final salvation. Like Anna, part of our lives as Church is devoted to fasting and prayer, disciplining our lives for hearing and seeing what God wants of us. In the midst of this waiting, this faithful boredom of routine, we need to be prepared for the unlikeliest moment of all. No loud trumpets, no Rapture, no horsemen of Apocalypse. Instead, we should be ready, perhaps, for the most mundane moment, no different than all the passing moments of our very long life lived in the promise, to surprise us with the realization that right there at the heart of something so banal, something holy is stirring, that time is not so much ending, as (to use St. Paul's phrase) reaching its fullness.

So we wait. Waiting, consisting of living, should be who we are year round. In preparing to remember a day that has come, we should look forward to the day that has been promised to us.

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