November 28, 2010 – The First Sunday of Advent — those four weeks of waiting for a promise to be kept, a wish to be granted, a child to be born.
We wait for many things during our lives. As children, we wait for Christmas to come and then for summer vacation to arrive; as adolescents we wait to see how we did on the exam or for Friday night to come around; as adults we wait for a plane, for a promotion—or a job, for a partner, for healing, for retirement, or for a relationship to be mended.
What are you waiting for today? Is it for recognition, love, healing, an end to loneliness, economic security, more clarity and direction for your life, more faith, less fear? Or are you simply waiting for an empty place in your heart to be filled, though you have no idea why it is empty or what can be done about it Many of us wait with a good deal of anxiety. Writer Frederick Buechener says this about waiting:
“(Once my children were of driving age), if they didn’t come back when I expected them to, especially at night, I would stand at the window desperate for the sight of their headlights winding up the long hill, or I would lie in my bed…waiting for the blessed sound of their car pulling up by the stone wall, the flip-flop of their shoes coming up the stone path. I have spent uncounted hours of my life in such haggard waiting.” (Frederick Buechener, Telling Secrets, p. 56).
We may wait with anxiety, but also with impatience. It can take so long for the pink and white rosebush to bloom, for the dining room to get painted, for the medical tests to come back. As did the prophets of old, we cry out to God – you promise to help – where are you?
Today’s Gospel is the warning we hear at the beginning of every Advent season to be watchful and keep awake while we wait because unexpected events may occur for which we are unprepared, such as The Great Flood of the Hebrew Scriptures which swept away everyone who had not built an ark, as Noah had.
I’d like to talk about the usual interpretation of this lesson, and then suggest an alternative.
The lesson from Matthew is cautionary. God expects us to be “ready” – what might that mean? Having your house in order? Wills and funeral plans made? Relationships mended? Forgiveness requested and offered?
Maybe it simply means that we should live every day as if it were our last—because it could be….
The truth is that we already live in a culture of hyper-vigilance and false urgency. Each time we go to the airport there is the terror alert color of the day and body scans, constant reminders that safety is not a given. We see graphs of the stock market (and our economic futures) fluctuating wildly. During Minnesota winters, we know that any plans we make are subject to the whims of the weather (along with the weather hype that accompanies each snowflake). It’s not that we aren’t aware every minute that we are vulnerable. Perhaps this constant urgency and inflation of every negative possibility keeps is perpetually stirred up and anxious..
After forty years in the news business, WCCO’s Don Shelby talks about the sensationalism that pervades the media now; the preoccupation with violence, the way that news programs are put together so that “if it bleeds, it leads,” the obsession with celebrity.
He talks of the specific moment he knew it was time to retire: In a news room, whenever the most critical, emergency news comes over the wire (or the computer) seven bells ring in a newsroom to alert the staff. This happened three times in Shelby’s career: when JFK was shot; during 911; and when actors Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise had their baby.
So let me offer another interpretation of today’s lesson.
Advent is a time not only to be prepared for the worst, but also to pay attention to the best. God breaks into our lives not only at the moments of death, but during moments of life. What if we used these weeks to be mindful – as the lesson tells us – of what we are given on a daily basis? Maybe our Advent Calendar should be a record of the biggest blessing or gift received each day instead of a way to count off days until the big holiday arrives.
There can be gifts we receive that we don’t even realize we’re waiting for. Former public radio commentator Erick Friesen relates this incident:
“On Good Friday, 1944, Fritz Reck sat at his writing desk in his ancestral home outside Munich, writing in his diary about the spiritual degradation that his country was experiencing under Hitler. Reck is distraught, angry, and nearly destroyed by what he has witnessed.
And then, while he is writing, on the radio there is playing a part of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He listens to the final chorus with the unforgettable words:
“May the sinner, worn with weeping,
Comfort find in they dear keeping…”
And Reck is swept up in the terrible irony of his own anguish mirroring that of the friends and family of Jesus, grieving at the Cross. The music releases his despair and at the same time brings him the most profound consolation.”
Friesen calls this coincidence the “exquisite randomness” through which, at a given moment, something can pierce through an individual heart. And it is not only music on the radio or great art that produces this, but also he most commonplace and ordinary incidents: a glimpse of deep blue morning glories on a white trellis; a small child trustfully taking hold of your hand; someone giving you a compliment at the exact moment when you need it most. An “exquisite randomness” where a message seems to appear out of nowhere and seems to be there especially for you. We don’t simply prepare for Christmas during Advent; we observe Advent by being awake to God’s presence and blessings our lives each and every day.
Perhaps no other symbol embodies the bittersweet nature of Advent—the call to be prepared for the end and to be awake to the blessings along the way—than the Christmas wreath, if we pay attention and maybe even do a little research. It’s a good day to talk about wreaths, since our Advent wreath will be here each Sunday until Christmas, growing progressively brighter.
A wreath is basically branches or stems twisted into a circle.
The Greeks awarded laurel wreaths to victorious Olympic athletes. The Romans placed wreaths on the heads of military heroes. Wreaths are associated with victory. I’m keeping a small wreath on my desk during Advent to remind me of the private victories I have won or been given this year.
Furthermore, the wreath is, of course, the predecessor of the crown, and Scripture often speaks of crowns, from the crown of life that is promised us in heaven to the crown of thorns the soldiers place on the head of Jesus to mock his kingship.
The evergreen wreath with the red bow on our front door can serve as a circular reminder that the end of one year is woven seamlessly into the beginning of another; the end of one life continues uninterrupted into the next one.
I want to close with one of my favorite movie scenes, one that seems to capture both themes of Advent: awareness of God’s abundant parade of blessings, coupled with the knowledge of the uncertainty of life.
Besides being a brilliant, if eccentric, World War II general, George Patton was a devoted student of Greek and Roman warfare. At the end of the movie about his life, simply entitled “Patton,” we hear actor George C. Scott – who plays Patton, say this:
“For over a thousand years Roman, conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession, came trumpeteers, musicians, together with carts laden with treasure. In the triumphal chariot, a slave stood behind the victor, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”