Advent, Eliot, and Apocalypse
By Ed Watson
I preached at Christ Church this Sunday for the First Sunday of Advent. I thought the lectionary would give me some nice readings about Gabriel, or perhaps Joseph and Mary beginning to make their way to Bethlehem. Instead it was Isaiah calling on God to make the mountains shake and Jesus telling the disciples that he would do just that. So, here's what I came up with, featuring T.S. Eliot. Enjoy!
'From ages past no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.'
When I was younger, my favourite thing about December 1st was the promise of an Advent Calendar. My sister and I would eagerly wake up early and, under parental supervision, carefully open the first window so as not to damage the chocolate contained within. It was invariably a reindeer, or perhaps a crib or a sheep: the usual pastoral advent images. The readings today, however, suggest that our calendars might have been better served by offering up some slightly more eschatological chocolates: instead of a reindeer, day one could have been the star of the magii falling to earth; day two, meanwhile, could have been the angels who appeared to the shepherds descending to earth with Christ at their forefront. An apocalyptic calendar for an apocalyptic set of advent readings.
This is not just an idea that I found faintly amusing as I wondered how to preach on these passages; it's an expression of the apparent disconnect between my default understanding of advent and what the beginning we mark today is actually the beginning of. The readings today reminded me we aren't just looking forward to a beautiful, messy scene of a babe born to a virgin in a stable; we are also looking forward to that same Son descending in a glory which we cannot even begin to comprehend.
Now, among other things, this fact reminds us that as we stand (looking back to that beginning and waiting hopefully for the end) we stand in the middle way; that we stand in the thin space between birth and death, between creation and redemption. The Church building itself reminds us of this, as we worship with the Baptismal font and Te Deum window behind us and the crucifixion and Incarnation before us. It reminds us that even as we look back to the Incarnation we still stand with Isaiah, praying for redemption; that even as we look forward hoping for a world to come we still stand with the disciples, hearing the words of Christ as they point far beyond the horizons of our imagination.
What, then, are we doing here, with all this looking back and forth to things we cannot see? What are we doing as we begin a new year of watching, hoping, and praying, a beginning which is, in itself, no beginning at all? Why do we do this, again and again, when the beginning is beyond living memory and the end it promises is beyond the sight of either spiritual ecstasy or intellectual brilliance?
My honest answer is this: I do not know. If I were to hazard a guess, however, it would be this: we are remembering. We are first remembering that the whole process of creation and redemption, of birth, death and resurrection, has already been completed. Second, and following from this, we are remembering what we, the people of the middle, have been told to do: we are remembering that we have been told to wait; that we have been told to keep awake.
What does this mean, to wait? On the human side, I think T.S. Eliot puts it best: in East Coker he writes, “I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.” We are to remember, then, that as we stand in the middle the beginning and the end are beyond us, even as we are caught up in them. We are to remember that as they are beyond us, it is important that we find some peace with and within our limitation.
As well as this, however, we are also to remember that this waiting is not the waiting of those who sleep: it is the waiting of those who are told by Christ, in words which will not pass away, to keep awake. We are the slaves left in charge. We are the slaves for whom to wait means to hope, for whom to keep awake means to love, and for whom to love and to hope means to wait. To wait is not, then, to just give over to simple passivity: it is, to use the words of Eliot again, to be those who are both still and still becoming. It is to be still in prayer, but still becoming as we live in faith. It is to be still in contemplation, but still becoming as we live in hope. It is to be still in the love of God, but still becoming in the life which that love inspires.
This is a world within which God is veiled. It is a world of racial and economic injustice, injustice which I for one have benefitted from, injustice which informs the very metaphors we use to speak of God. It is a world where to wait for God means to try to stand against that injustice, not in order to fix things according to our own visions, but in the hope that He might work for and through those who wait for Him. It is therefore a world where we must listen before we speak, where we must close our eyes in prayer if we are to seek, and where we must live not just out of thought for beginnings or ends, but out of love of God and neighbour here and now. This Advent then, as we have done in Advents past and as we will do again in advents yet to come, let us remind ourselves of this: that our task, our only task, is to wait upon the Word of God. For He is at the gates, though hidden, and we know not when His end shall be upon us. Let us pray then that we may, in our very waiting, become the tender branches which bear the fruits of His summer.
In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Amen.
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