Advent is my favorite season. There is something about the shortening of the days as in the Northern Hemisphere the earth cycles away from the face of the sun, the weather cools, and the days shorten and darken. Within this natural process something is awakened in us – a kindling of light within us to compensate for the shortening and darkening of the days. This kindling of light finds symbolic expression in the candles of the Advent Wreath. Each of the four weeks of the Advent Season are represented by another lit candle. Despite the darkening and shortening of the days – the kindling of the light within is an anticipation for and an expression of the hopeful expectation – of a moving towards the greater light of the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore creation in a new heaven and a new earth.
Advent is my favorite season in the cycle of the Church’s year. The music is haunting, the rich purple or in some churches blue of the liturgical season chimes so perfectly with the outer world imbued with somber light. The atmosphere of expectation increases as each day we open another window in the Advent Calendar magnetized to the fridge door or pined to the wall.
Advent’s theme is one of hopeful expectation. Although our gaze focuses forwards our immediate experience is one of waiting – and while we wait – we prepare.
The focus of my exploration on this first Sunday of Advent is a question with two parts: what is it we are waiting for – and why is it we are still waiting? But before I respond to this question I need to note in 2020 our Advent experience will be changed in a time of the pandemic.
This Advent we will have to explore our experience of expectation, waiting and preparation without the supports of in-person worship. For us, this year, the kindling of inner light as each Sunday another candle is lit on the Advent Wreath, along with hearing the haunting melodies of the Advent music against the background of the somber purple of the Church’s vestments and hangings – will be a virtual experience.
We are more equipped for this than we might think. Many aspects of our lives are now conducted from the terminals of our computers, or viewed as our Advent worship will be – through the media of live and recorded streaming through your YouTube app on your TV. We human beings are social creatures and of-course we badly miss the social gathering aspects of worship. At St Martin’s we have been fortunate enough to have been able to prepare for this eventuality over the spring and summer months through equipping the church for HD live streaming.
As part of the process of preparation Linda+ and I have also had time to reflect on the pandemic’s implications for the theology that underpins our Eucharistic liturgy. We have found our way to reclaiming an older strand of Eucharistic theology – one that stresses physical participation less than the importance of participation through our senses of sight and hearing. With each week we continue to learn from our experience in honing the performance of our liturgy to better fit a virtual experience.
On this Advent Sunday, I give thanks to God for his loving providence towards us at St Martin’s. For among the resources that have allowed us to prepare for the challenges of the winter ahead, we have been blessed to have among us the technical skills particularly of Ian Tulungen, David Brookhart, and Emma Marion – our technical production crew, who together with the adaptive skills of our musicians: Gabe Alfieri, Steve Young, Lori Istok, Amanda Neves, Jacob Chippo, and Glenn Zienowicz enable us to open our liturgy not only to our members viewing from home but to so many others who are drawn to worship with us online.
But I’ve avoided the two part question I posed earlier long enough: what is it we are waiting for – and why is it we are still waiting? The answer is too large and complex for one sermon and I trust that the essential elements of addressing the question will emerge over the next 3 Sundays.
Our readings point to the experience of waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. When fulfillment is delayed we experience the anguish of frustrated longing, that overshadows the hope within us.
Writing in the time after the return of the exiles from the 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah – remember this Isaiah is the third by this name, laments that despite the exiles return and the hopes of a glorious restoration of the nation -the pallor of exile still hangs heavy over the people causing the prophet to cry out:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence. Is 64:1
In other words Isaiah cries out to God: why do you remain afar from us – up there in the heavens – aloof and distant – can’t you see the mess we are in – understand the help we need? This is a cry of accusation – why have you not yet rescued us?
The prophet’s cry alerts us to a central theological strand in Advent, one not often talked about – a strand which in better times is more easily avoided. At the heart of Advent is the painful experience of waiting. Waiting is the hardest thing we ever have to endure because waiting is an experience of helplessness.
In Advent we await what with the eye of faith we know to be the certainty of God’s promise of restoration of the world – a hopeful expectation that in fulfillment of the promise God will finally put the wrongs to rights. With the eye of faith we joyfully celebrate the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise. In the infant Jesus – God the Creator comes to dwell among us within the tent of the Creation.
But the problem for us lies in our experience of the nature of time. In God’s coming to dwell within the tent of humanity – divinity emptying into the life of Jesus, God opens a new and crucial chapter in the long story of Creation. But to our dismay the chapter is not yet complete as we groan with painful longing for its final completion – which the scriptures talk of as a second coming or return.
The third Isaiah’s question – after all this time – and despite the Advent of the Incarnation -remains our painful question too. When – when O God, will you tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains will quake and the nations tremble at your presence? For Christians this question becomes: when O God will Jesus return clothed in the vibrant metaphor of descending clouds of glory?
When indeed? Jesus himself seems to offer little comfort when in Mark he reaffirms the enigma of time. He tells us that we will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds – but about that day or hour no one knows – so keep awake.
What does it look like to keep awake? We will have to return to this next time. So for now let’s simply say, Amen.