First Sunday of Advent
There is a moment before the sun rises when, even though it is still dark, you sense the coming dawn. It is so close that you can feel the new day’s sun bathing the terrain with light. It is so close that your anticipation causes you to scan the horizon for the first thread of light, but it is not here yet. So you wait. You wait for the day to arrive. This is what the experience of Advent is all about, as we can see in our lectionary readings for this week.
We might imagine what this waiting looks like – perhaps sitting on the porch or in your car – staring into the abyss of the last remnant of the night. It is true that Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation, but the images presented to us in these texts are far from motionless, as though we can do nothing but sit in the darkness, something akin to a waiting room at a doctor’s office. Instead, we find these lessons to be full of movement. The vision in Isaiah speaks of a time when Israel and the nations will travel to the mountain of the Lord (2:2-3). This is echoed in Psalm 122, a psalm of ascent sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In response to this movement of peoples, instruction and the word of the Lord will go forth (Isaiah 2:3). Romans 13 also draws on the theme of journeying by exhorting readers to “live [literally, walk] honorably” (13:13). This time of waiting is certainly one of expectation, but also one of motion.
In the anticipation ahead of dawn, we become keenly aware of the pervasive darkness that surrounds us, the shroud that will flee when the light finally arrives. Likewise, our Advent anticipation is set in sharp contrast with the characteristics of the world that surrounds us. The Romans text names some of this darkness, and Isaiah mentions the proliferation of swords and spears. Last week, while in Nagasaki, Pope Francis once again called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and decried their capabilities not only for physical destruction but also for cultivating distrust between different countries and peoples.
That war, violence, and animosity grip our world is no secret; we are confronted by this reality every day in the news and even in our communities. That they are tied to the vision of Advent is perhaps a bit more surprising. As the word of the Lord goes forth from Jerusalem, the people repurpose their swords and spears for creative uses within a renewed cosmos. The divisions brought about by hatred and violence are reconciled so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). A new reality of peace spreads over the land. As a result, Advent enables us to exercise judgment or discernment about the world around us and to see this darkness in a new way, as the penultimate reality that will soon give way.
Paul tells us “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). The “now” in focus here is not the result of the clock or calendar changing. Hence, day-and-hour speculation is useless (Matthew 24:36, 44). However, something has changed; the winds have shifted, and something new is emerging. The night will not last forever; the day is coming, and it is very close. In fact, the approaching day brings us closer to the fullness of our salvation.
This moves us to hope – the primary focus of Advent, especially on its first Sunday. As we liturgically anticipate the coming of the Christ child, so too we hope for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. To live into this hope, however, requires that we keep awake (Matthew 24:42). Otherwise, we will miss the approaching dawn. Even so, this wakefulness is not a static activity either.
We begin Advent journeying toward God’s city. Throughout the Christian tradition, Jerusalem has signified the eschatological destination of the pilgrim church. Here it is no different. Jerusalem, “built as a city that is firmly bound together,” underscores the role of the whole community of the people of God in this hopeful vision. Indeed, we do not walk alone. So let us eagerly await the sunrise and clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), all the while remembering Isaiah’s encouragement to “walk in the light of the Lord!” (2:5).
Photo Credit: Go Placidly Amidst the Noise and Haste