HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! That is the proper greeting for this coming Sunday, which is the beginning of the church year. We have finally made it through Ordinary Time, and we are beginning the whirlwind of feasts and fasts that lasts until the Easter season culminates at the Pentecost. Our lives are a balance of whirlwind times and ordinary times, of fasts and of feasts, of times up on the mountaintop and times in the wilderness and times in the fertile gardens and meadows; thus, the church year reflects this same balance.
This Sunday’s readings kick off the liturgical year and the season of Advent with the end, with images of the end time, of the second coming of Jesus, of the final judgment. Each year, our season of Advent plays two roles. The obvious role is that we are preparing for the great feast of the Nativity, to relive the story of the life of Jesus, who was at once both fully human and fully divine. The Nativity story is a great one, full of miracles and visions and the wonderful upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom. It captivates people, draws us in by the very humanity of the people involved. But that isn’t enough, because the actual Nativity has already happened. It is history to us, and we know how the story turns out.
Or do we? Has the story really ended yet? After all, we are still here, right? And we are God’s people, right? The story of God’s people still flows through us, and flows into our children and their children and their children. It is still unfolding, still being told, and will continue to be told until the eschaton. This is the second role for the season of Advent, taking time each year to prepare for the end time; for a time when tumultuous things will happen, but we won’t know quite why or when or how; for a time when everything seems unpredictable, and we don’t know what’s around the corner; for a time when the sun and moon will go dark and the stars fall from the sky. It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?
So here’s a silly question: do we live in these times now?
Jesus spoke the words we hear in Sunday’s gospel,
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
and he also said the very baffling,
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
Did Jesus and those he taught live in these end times? And if they did, then how can we possibly live in the end times, too? After all, it’s been two thousand years, and so much has changed. But at the same time, so much is the same. After all, tumultuous things were happening then, just as they are now, and people rarely understand the why and when and how of those tumultuous things while they are happening. Everything seems unpredictable as we live it, and we don’t know what’s around the corner. There are solar eclipses and lunar eclipses and comets and meteors and stars. And it is only in reflection, in looking back after these things have already happened, that we can see any kind of order or sense or pattern to them.
So Advent is relevant to us today, because we are always living in the end time. It is the end time now, and it will be the end time when you finish reading this post and click on something else, and it was the end time when Jesus walked the roads of Galilee, and it will be the end time next week and next month and next year. We do not know when we will die, when our circumstances will change, when life will seem to fall apart, and when everything will seem to come together for us. Only God knows.
We pray in Sunday’s collect, asking God to give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Close your eyes for a moment, so that you can visualize this. Picture yourself standing, somewhere outside. Picture yourself someplace busy, alive, throbbing with life and energy and people. Around you are both light and darkness. You can see the energies in the air, swirling and flowing in and out and through and around the people who are there. Some are mostly light, and others are mostly dark, and still others are all swirled and mixed. Focus on the you in the middle of this scene. Feel the ground beneath your feet, smell the air around you, hear the sounds of the crowds and the bustle. Breathe in, and when you exhale, visualize the darkness that flows and swirls within you, and picture it leaving you along with the air you breathe out. Repeat this once or twice more, so that you can see the divine light within you. Do you glow? Is your light strong and bright, or is it weak and flickering? With God’s grace, you are casting away darkness with each breath. Now we will pray for light. Continue to breathe deeply and evenly, exhaling darkness with each breath. And now, when you inhale, visualize God’s light coming into your body. The light flows in with your breath, swirls around, and then forms on your skin as armor. This breath might be boots on your feet, or greaves on your legs. This inhalation may be a breastplate of light, or a shining helmet, or radiant gauntlets. Continue to breathe in light and breathe out darkness, until you are a beacon shining from your armor of light.
Now, beloved, now you are ready for the end time, the end time in which you already live. God equips us with what we need. As Paul writes in the epistle reading, God strengthens us to the end. But sometimes we need to be reminded of this. We get caught up in all the bustle and crowd and noise that we forget that God has already equipped us with the armor of light, has already given us the strength we need to survive these frightening end times. All we have to do is stay awake.