The Apocalypse of Christmas
Jerusalem Jackson Greer
St. Peter’s Conway, 2017
Today is the first Sunday in Advent.
It is the beginning of the Church Year, in the life of our faith, this is our New Year’s Day.
Advent is a season of preparation. In January, when we are making our New Year’s resolutions many of us make them in preparation for coming events – This year I am going to begin my diet/workout regime so that I am prepared for our vacation to the beach. This year I am going to begin saving so that I am prepared when an appliance breaks. This year I am going to make a meal plan every week so that we are prepared for dinner each night.
Those are the sort of preparations we make for our new calendar year. But as believers, as followers of The Way, today is our New Year’s Day. Today is the day we begin fresh, today is the day we began again, all things new. Today is the day we began to make preparations for Christ coming and all its “blessed implications” as Sara Groves sings.
Today, on this New Year’s Day, we also began a new cycle of readings. We are moving out of the book of Matthew and in to the book of Mark. We do this because we follow the Revised Common Lectionary. This three-year cycle of weekly scripture readings are built around the Church Year and the seasons of the Church Year reflect the life of Christ. The gospel selections for each Sunday provide the focus for that day, and the other selections for a given day generally have a thematic relationship to the gospel reading, although this is not always the case. The order of the years are this: Year A we read Matthew, Year B we read Mark, and in Year C we read Luke. John, not being a synoptic gospel gets scattered in here and there.
Today we began the book of Mark. Which means, that in terms of the cycle we are in the middle. Smack dab in the middle.
Which is just one of the many reasons today’s Gospel reading feels so timely to me.
Keep awake, Jesus says, keep awake.
The middle of anything – a journey, a life, a heartbreak, an adventure, a project, a trip – is where fatigue sets in. The middle is where you can see how far you’ve come, and yet you know how much further you have to go. The middle is where it seems as if the babies will never sleep, the laundry will never be finished, the kid will never graduate, the grief will never heal, the tour will never end. This is the place where exhaustion and fatigue take over. This is the moment with faith and hope can begin to wane. This is when cynicism and selfishness find an opening in our hearts and minds.
And this year, this is where we began Advent.
Advent, a word which means “arrival” or “coming”, is for Christians, is a season of Preparation. It is a penitent season – which is a funny juxtaposition against the jolly holly merriment of Christmas preparations. It is a season set apart for reflection, prayer, and introspection as we prepare for the coming of Christ.
Which is a curious way to begin something. I think if I had been on the committee to devise the Church Year I would have started the year off with a bang, with Christ birth or even Death and Resurrection. But instead we began with preparation. We began with waiting. With watching. With wanting.
And this year, as we began in the middle, we start things with an admonishment to Wake up! To Keep watch!
We begin with Jesus quoting apocalyptic sounding words from Isaiah, words that I imagine (being a raised a good Southern Baptist,) being said in a loud booming voice:
“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 the heavens will be shaken.”
What a strange way to begin a season in which we are preparing for the greatest night of joy there has ever been!
But according to New Testament scholar Michael Gorman (as quoted in The Light is Winning), the word apocalypse “Does not mean ‘destruction,’ ‘end of the world,’ or anything similar.” Apocalypse literally means “revealing”. It means “unveiling” or “disclosure.”
Which means, that the birth of Christ, was itself an apocalypse. A moment when God was revealed in the broken mess of human form.
In his book, The Light is Winning, author Zach Hoag, lays out the idea of apocalypse as a pattern for the Christian life and the movement of God. Not as one great end-of-the-world event, but as a pattern in which the old things, old ways, old beliefs, die or are stripped away and new things are birthed, revealed, unveiled. Life to death, death to resurrection. And as Zach so succinctly points out in his book over and over, when we can look at endings for what they are revealing, instead of only what we are losing, we are better able to enter into the redemptive narrative of grace and love.
But this entering in, this being present to what is being revealed, and letting go of what was and preparing for what will be can be taxing and exhausting. Especially in the middle of the process.
In today’s gospel we are told three times, in the three separate ways to “to keep alert/awake” (verses 34, 35, 37). These three admonishments parallel the Advent of Christ himself; Christ has come, Christ is present, and Christ will come again.
In this way we see that the events of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection are inseparable; they are woven together, and enter into one is to enter into the others.
So what does this mean for us, what does this mean for our Advent season? And what does this have to do with being in the middle of an apocalyptic narrative? What are we supposed to do with this passage of scripture, with Jesus’ admonishment to keep awake? Are we supposed to sit on our porch steps and stare at the sky, waiting on his arrival? Are we supposed to fill our pantries with canned goods and our mattress with gold bars?
No. I mean, I suppose you can if you would like, it never hurts to be well stocked in dried beans and chicken stock, but that is not what I believe this passage is saying to us in this season.
As Episcopalians, we are people of practice. We are people who belong to a tradition steeped in spiritual practices – fasting, confession, the Daily Office, contemplation, so when I looked at the scriptures for this week, my natural inclination was to ask
Okay, Holy Spirit, so what are we supposed to DO? What practice is Christ pointing us to here? How are we to begin our Advent preparation here in the middle, in a time and place when we are all so tired?
One of the central themes in each of our scripture readings this morning is the revelation of Christ.
Three times the Psalmist writes, Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved (Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18) The passage from Isaiah begins with O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, (Isaiah 64:1-9) and in 1 Corinthians we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
I believe that through these, and the words of the Gospel, we are being called to make our own faith New Year’s Resolution, and began to practice the Spiritual Discipline of Noticing, and we are being prodded into accepting our part in the unveiling, in the revealing of Christ here on earth.
And what are we to notice? I think we are being called to notice the revelation of Christ in the world today. In the midst of the beauty and the mess, in the midst of heartbreak and celebration, in the midst of our ordinary days and these extraordinary times.
This Advent, we, like the servants in the gospel parable, need to continue to go about our lives, living out our callings and vocations, doing our jobs, loving our neighbors, caring for creation, welcoming the stranger, wrapping presents, and baking cookies, all the while being on the watch for how the presence of Christ is being revealed around us, and for the places and the moments where we are to be a part of the unveiling.
But this spiritual discipline, like any practice, requires just that. It requires us to practice. To do it over and over and over in order to become proficient. You might not think that Noticing is something that would take practice, but I promise that it is.
A few years ago, when we first moved to the farm, and Nathan began commuting, we bought a new car, a Kia Soul. Now, before Nathan bought this car, I had only peripheral knowledge of this particular make and model car. But what happens when you buy a new car? You began to notice all the other cars like it on the road, right? Right, so that began to happen for us. But Nathan and the boys took it to a new level; They invented a game called Soul Patrol.
The way it works is this: If you see another Kia Soul on the road, you must be the first one to fist bump the roof of your car and proclaim loudly, “Soul Patrol!” You only get the point if another car rider sees the Soul Patrol (ergo, you can’t fake a sighting). If you call Soul Patrol on a Soul that has already been claimed, you lose a point. Points only accumulate over the course of one trip. In other words, if you we go to the grocery store and out to eat, everything we see there and back counts for that round. However if we get back in the car a few hours later to go to the movies, well, that is a new game.
This practice, this playing Soul Patrol, has upped our Noticing skills when it comes to Kia Souls quite a bit. You might say that we – over the course of the past few years – have become Champion Kia Soul Noticers.
But it took a while. And it took intentionality. It took deciding that this was a skill (albeit a strange one) worth working on, a skill worth investing our efforts, and our intentions.
This level of intentionality, this dedication of effort when it comes to learning to Notice, is what it takes to begin practicing.
So what does this look like? How can we began to hone this discipline as Christmas approaches? How can we Be Alert! And Stay Awake! (Or as one church member said to me “stay woke!”) this Advent?
I think we start by being on the lookout for opportunities to reflect the light of Christ countenance for others; Sharing the good news that ALL are the BELOVED, pouring Christ love into everyone we meet – we can practice by Noticing Christ in the face of those we meet, and reflecting that light back – by calling the checkers at the grocery story by name, being patient with the person working the IT help desk in another land, with slowing down and listening to the frustrated child in the classroom, by having grace for the exhausted college student in tears…
We can also keep awake and practice the Spiritual Discipline of Noticing, by being on the lookout for Christ presence in our daily lives – in the prayers that come as we struggle for words in the midst of our grief, in the source of forgiveness that we find for those who have hurt us, and in the inexplicable light of hope that breaks through our darkest nights.
And we can stay alert! and practice Noticing, by being on the watch for the hope of Christ to come – let us look for those moments and the opportunities when we, following Christ example, can help to usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven – fighting against injustices, advocating for those who have no voice, or becoming family for those who have been abandoned or ostracized.
Buying canned goods and a lifetime supply of toilet paper is one way to prepare for an apocalypse. And hanging up garlands and decorating trees is one way to prepare for Christmas.
But this practice of staying alert, of paying attention, of noticing, this is how we prepare our hearts for the apocalypse of Christmas coming, for unveiling of Emmanuel God-with us.
This is how we carrying on when we find ourselves in the middle of the journey, worn out and doubting if we will ever reach our destination. This is how we keep the faith and stay alert, so that when the day in which the Word will become flesh and blood and move into our neighborhood comes, we will be able to recognize the coming glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
So let us begin today. Let us make this our new-faith year resolution. Let us begin Advent in this way, Noticing the presence of Christ among us, reflecting his light for all to see.