Advent 1

“Things Fall Apart,” Susan Ryder

Mark 13:24-37
But 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.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 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. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Craig Barnes, “Things Are Always Falling Apart”
After witnessing the devastation of society following World War I, William Butler Yeats lamented that ‘things fall apart; the center cannot hold.’ It’s a famous line of poetry that social commentators invoke a lot these days. But the world was always falling apart, as even the most cursory reading of history reveals. Sometimes a society’s demise came at the hands of an invading empire that wiped out government, commerce, worship, and culture. At other times, a deadly plague destroyed the known world. Or a devastating economic depression stripped people of their farms, jobs, and hopes for a future. Over the last few generations we learned to live with nuclear threats and terrorism. If we’re paying attention, we have to realize that the world as we know it is always a thread away from unraveling.

The natural response to our anxiety is to huddle together with others who share our particular worries and agree to blame someone else. They are not like us. They are trying to take something away from us. We have to stop them. Sometimes ‘they’ are gay couples. Sometimes ‘they’ are straight Republicans. Or the liberal elite, or Muslims, or the police, or undocumented immigrants. Or, or, or. There is no limit of people to blame for dismantling our cherished understanding of how the world should be. This blaming may well be just. As the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville reminded us, there really is a “they” made up of racist fascists with a mission to rid their world of those who do not look like them. The hurt they create is sheer evil. The problem is that even when we know who threatens us, labeling them as dangerous does not make us more secure. What we need is someone who can intervene in the world, destroying the power of evil. We need a Savior. At a time when society is again falling apart into combative factions of us and them, let at least the church believe that all things are centered in a Savior. And that this center will hold.”

Confession: I never use the Lectionary readings assigned for the First Sunday of Advent. That’s not a very dramatic admission, I realize, since I rarely use Lectionary readings anyway. But during traditional liturgical seasons or holy days – Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, and Christmas – I do tend to use them for my Reflections. Most years I pick up the Lectionary readings for the second Sunday of Advent, when John the Baptist shows up, and then later when the Angels appear to Mary and Joseph, concluding with the birth stories. But I always avoid readings assigned for the first Sunday of Advent because I’ve never understood what apocalyptic readings have to do with a season of hopeful anticipation. That’s just never made sense to me … until this year.

Earlier this week I decided to read the Mark passage assigned for this Sunday, as we consider our reframing of Advent, and I was struck by how powerful it is. As never before I was able to relate to the feelings of devastation those 1st Century Jews were experiencing; the need to believe in a Savior who can rescue us from the doom we will surely meet if things keep going the way they are. It’s why passages about an end of suffering coming down from the heavens are so powerful for those who have been continuously victimized. It’s embarrassing to have taken so long to “get it” – 30 years into ministry, 57 years of living. And why do I finally get it, why do these words speak to me now? Because the terrifying state of our world is beginning to affect me personally; the tyrannical powers at large in our world are having a direct impact on my life and the lives of those I care for. If you ever wanted an example of privilege, that’s it right there, folks.

When apocalyptic material shows up in biblical writings, it’s a sign to pay attention. It is not necessarily meant as a warning about the end of times, as the apocalyptic genre is so frequently interpreted – but rather to expect the revelation of God and God’s transforming power in our time. For Mark’s audience around 70AD, the recent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans – a response to their most recent failed rebellion – certainly provided such a moment. It was a life-shattering event for the Jews, who revered the Temple as the dwelling place of the Holy. With the Temple in pieces, they believed the very presence of God was in jeopardy. Their relationship with and worship of God, that which gave them meaning, was in peril. They were terrified of what the future held for them, when the centerpiece of their religion, their very being, had been destroyed. Of course, they had been suffering for a long time already, but the destruction of the Temple must have felt like the last straw, one final indignity. And so these words, even though attributed to Jesus decades after his death, would have been a great comfort to them – a promise that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they were not abandoned; all would be made right again. They just needed to stay awake and keep a watchful eye, to be conscious – even though they’d certainly have preferred to cry and bury their heads in the sand. I can relate because that’s how I’ve felt most days this past year.

The placement of this text on the first Sunday of this season means that Advent, above all else, is a call to be wide awake, to be fully conscious – not so that we don’t miss a Savior swooping in and saving us. In fact, I think it’s risky, even dangerous, to wait for someone else to save us; to assume that it’s up to someone else to save us. Barak Obama cannot save us. Even Robert Mueller cannot save us. It is up to US to save the world – we have to be the ones to do the work of salvation, following the example of Jesus. For as has always been the case, that is the only way for the center to hold. When Jesus spoke of the “kingdom” he said the kingdom is always here and always not yet here. The kingdom is always here because we can imagine what Emmanuel – “God with us” – looks like through us – and most importantly we can BE the kingdom. We can be “God with us” – in our acts of kindness, support, and compassion. We can be the active “Emmanuel” – even and perhaps especially among those with whom we feel most challenged .THAT is the kingdom that is always here, and the kingdom that is yet to be – encompassing all, even those we have yet to love as our neighbor – those who have harmed us, those who actively seek to divide us, who assault the helpless, those who seek to wage war, who work to make people feel “less than” because of their age, size, race, sexual orientation, religion, or gender identity.

In this dark time, as the year is falling into shadows within shadows, light is awaited. Mark prophesies the falling of stars and the failure of the moon, darkness on the sun and the powers of heaven shaken. We worry whether our democracy will fail. If there will be a reassertion of the old order, so recently unmasked, in which the likes of Roy Moore and so many others run roughshod over the lives of women and girls” while Congress votes for a tax plan to make the rich fabulously richer on the backs of the already broken poor. What has been set loose upon the world in the past year? And what will be set forth in the new year? We wait with baited breath, watching this clash of titans. But the prophecy holds more than this, more than these signs. This generation, Mark proclaimed, will not pass away without these signs and the presence of God coming among us. And he wrote this so many generations ago. Therefore we must consider, either that his words are nonsense – or, that the fulfillment of this prophecy has come among us, come true and come truly, time and again.

At the Ascension, the angels ask the awestruck and bereft disciples, as Jesus disappears forever from their sight, “Why are you looking up? This Jesus will return again as he came before.” We so want that to mean, with glory and power, in victory and pomp. But what if the angels meant ‘as he came before’ to be in the way of lowliness? What if they meant, in a new Bethlehem: in an out-of-the-way town in the middle of nowhere, in a nondescript country, to a below-middle-class couple who were away from home and huddled in a stable where no one noticed them, except a few shepherds who said they had heard angels singing about this very thing.

Henry Miller wrote: “Our destination is never a place, but always a new way of looking at things.” It’s hard, in these dark times, to know where to turn. Hard to glimpse, in small light, the quivering of wings, and hard to hear, in the drowse of our sleepy spirits, the carol that sings there is something to behold. But this is what we await. This is why we keep awake. This is our center, which must hold – for it is in this hope that the world does not rise and fall on the actions of whatever Caesar is blustering and strutting across the world stage, nor in the proclamations of the Herod du jour – but in the presence of “God with us” in grace-filled moments, that lie within our lives and beyond our times.”

Things fall apart – the center MUST hold. So as we sing our next hymn – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – may we sing it, may we hear it as a rallying cry for us to be the saviors of the world, to BE the light shining the way for the world. We are God with us.