Throughout Advent, we are invited to remember not only that Christ came in the flesh at Bethlehem but also why.
As I wrote this, I was sitting in my home study, looking out the window at a driving rain and occasionally checking the Weather Channel for updates on the path of Hurricane Irma. Here in the western North Carolina mountains, we were far from the devastation in Florida, but there was still enough threat of rain, flood, wind and power outages to cause a bit of anxiety. It was like that for a while. I have dear friends and godchildren in Houston, and I checked in with them frequently concerning Hurricane Harvey. I also have close friends in the Seattle area where wildfires were raging. I called one of those friends to check on him, and he said he had just driven across the state to Spokane and the smoke and fire were a bit eerie. He mused, “Add this to the hurricanes in the southeast and the nuclear threats from North Korea, and things are feeling a bit ‘apocalyptic’ these days.”
A “bit apocalyptic” is a good description of our reading from Isaiah and our Gospel lesson:
Isaiah 64:1-2 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.
Mark 13: 24-25 But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in heaven will be shaken.
And the question arises—how are these kinds of Bible lessons supposed to help get us ready for Christmas?
By early December, most of us have plans for either traveling to see family or getting the house ready to receive guests. We have school programs, and children’s plays, and parties at work or in the community or both. We have presents to buy and wrap, and cards to mail, and meals to prepare, and trips to plan, and, and, and. Again, what does all this “end of times” apocalyptic stuff have to do with getting ready for Christmas? Well, actually, a lot.
Yogi Berra was reputed to have said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.” Same thing applies in reverse during Advent, “If you don’t know what’s coming, you might not know it when it gets here.”
Most of the world around us is getting ready for a fuzzy and indistinct celebration that is a mishmash of the biblical story (summarized by a string of hymn titles: “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger,” “Angels We have Heard on High,” and “We Three Kings;”) plus a bit of English Victorian sentimentality brought to us by Charles Dickens, topped off with Santa Claus, Rudolph, The Grinch and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” All of which is a lot of fun and very nice, very nice indeed. It just isn’t what the Advent season is about. If this mix of sights, sounds and celebrations is all we look for, and get ready for, and prepare for, it is likely to be all that we notice of God coming into the world.
In the 12th century, monastery leader and great preacher Bernard of Clairvaux helpfully stated the overall message of Advent as “the coming of Christ,” and further clarified that in this liturgical season we are:
- remembering that Christ came in the flesh at Bethlehem;
- preparing for Christ to come daily in our community and in our hearts; and
- anticipating Christ coming again in the Second Coming.
Throughout Advent, we are invited to remember not only that Christ came in the flesh at Bethlehem but also why. Our “apocalyptic” texts for today were selected to help us think about why Christ came in the first place and to help us prepare for Christ to come to us again—and again and again.
Isaiah 64 was written by and for a people in exile, people who were living as strangers and aliens in a foreign land. They were a people who had suffered much and had lost everything that defined who they were as the chosen people of God—their land, their king, their temple. All they had left was the covenant with God summarized in the divine promise that “And I … will be your God and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). Isaiah cries out to God, lamenting and confessing the people’s sin and reminding God of this promise and imploring God to come and redeem them, rescue them.
The 13th chapter of Mark also alludes to this promise of God to come to God’s people. In the many years between the time in the wilderness talked about in Leviticus, the return from exile in Isaiah, and the life of Jesus recorded in Mark, many startling images had been added—sun and moon and stars disturbed, angels flying about, etc.—yet the promise remains constant and the promise remains sure: God will come, and God will save.
We are reminded of this history and promise every Sunday. In the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are invited to proclaim the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” We remember not only that Christ was born a baby in Bethlehem but that he also lived and walked among us and died upon a cross in Jerusalem. In the words “Christ is risen,” we proclaim that the resurrection is not only a past event but also a present reality—Christ living in the world and in our hearts every day. And we look to “that day” when Christ will come again to make all things new.
So, though the world is often quite “apocalyptic,” though we be surrounded by wars and rumors of wars, storms and fires both actual and metaphorical, though life may torture us with the remembrance of our faults and failures, our sins and shortcomings—”yet,” we can cry out with Isaiah, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter, we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). And we can pray with Paul that “(God) will also strengthen (us) to the end, so that (we) may be blameless on the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
Amen and amen.