Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent 1: Watch

We inhabit and are formed by story, inescapably so; our only real choice is which story or stories will form us. And many compete for that role. There is the patriotic story that forms us first as citizens ready to sacrifice all for the good of the nation/state. There is the commercial story that forms us first as producers and consumers willing to sacrifice all for economic security. There is the humanist story that forms us first as free and self-realized individuals willing to sacrifice all for personal happiness. And, there is the Christian story, that forms us first as the image-bearers of God, whose God was willing to sacrifice all for our salvation and for the reclamation of the cosmos. Which story will it be? We all must choose or others will be happy to choose for us.

Each story creates symbols and seasons, moments and rituals and objects in which the story is embedded and embodied. The Fourth of July is such a season and Old Glory is such a symbol in the patriotic story. Black Friday – and the whole season from just before Thanksgiving until just after New Year’s Day – serves the commercial story in a similar fashion. The Christian story has its Sacraments and its daily and weekly and yearly liturgies. Just now, the Christian story offers a symbol in time – the season of Advent. It is a way of making the story present to us again, of making us conscious of our place in it. And such consciousness is by no means easy to maintain. Advent shouts at us: Wake up – the night is far gone and the day is at hand. Your salvation is nearer now than when you first believed.

Advent relocates us in the midst of the story, far from Alpha, at an unknown remove from Omega and calls out – watch. St. Benedict began the prologue to his rule with the imperative listen; Advent begins with look. Look well in every direction possible: backward to the first advent – incarnation; forward to the last advent – parousia. But don’t forget to look around in the present, for we do not simply remember the once-present, now-absent Lord who will one day come again. We even now look around to see the Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth Who is everywhere present and filling all things, the Treasury of good things and the Giver of life. We look for the Holy Spirit within and without to manifest God’s continuing presence with us. We look for the body of Christ, the church, to manifest God’s continuing presence with us. In the midst of the story, in the present moment, Advent proclaims, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.”

Advent is the time to look, to keep watch, to be prepared. We keep on believing; we keep on loving; we keep on obeying. But,

We are not simply to believe, but to watch; not simply to love, but to watch; not simply to obey, but to watch…to be detached from what is present, and to live in what in unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once, and as he will come again, to desire his second coming.[1]

The Anglican collect for this first Sunday of Advent says it well:

Almighty God, 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 in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead; we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


[1] John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, quoted in Jon M. Sweeney, Cloister Talks.

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