Raise your heads
This season of Advent is a time for us to get ready for Jesus to come into our lives. Advent is also a drama, one that deliberately messes with our sense of time. We begin with the end, this apocalyptic vision of the last days, and then we make our way backwards in time week by week, back to the time of John the Baptist, back still further to the time of an expectant Mary. In a culture afflicted by complacency, Advent invites us into a drama meant to shake us out of our complacency. One way it does that is by running time backwards. Another is by exhorting us to look at the world around us and open our eyes.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
This is a vision of the end times, a forward looking to the day when we will see the “Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. For people who suffer, those who are caught in the unresolved tensions of this life, who are victims of oppression, this vision of a day when we will be liberated and creation relieved of its groaning, when the tensions of this life will finally be resolved, is a source of hope. We don’t know how this resolution will happen, we don’t know what it will look like, we don’t know when, but we trust that God is not finished with us yet. And so in this the darkest time of the year, we light a single candle, and we call it hope.
But this is not just about the future. When I hear today’s text speak of signs in the sun, moon and stars, and the roaring of the sea and the waves, my thoughts turn to our own times. To tornadoes that descend and lift away entire houses almost without warning. To wildfires that destroy great tracts of forest and threaten towns and villages. To a small island wiped off the map by the roaring of the sea and the waves last summer. This time it was uninhabited. The next one may not be.
These too are signs, signs of a creation which is groaning under the stress of climate change. There are statistics to back up the signs. The average surface temperature of the earth has risen by 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. The latest scientific prediction is that we are headed for an increase of 3 to 5 degrees based on current trends, well above the 2 degree threshold that is needed to mitigate the worst of the potential damage.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone faint, but the fear of what is coming upon the world is real. Recently one young adult I was talking to told me that they had decided not to have children, because they didn’t want their children exposed to the suffering that climate change would bring in that child’s lifetime.
Often when confronted by bad news, we have a tendency to stick our heads in the sand. To take cover. To be protect ourselves. To be passive.
But Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads.” It’s counter-intuitive. When our instincts, when our fear is telling us to keep our heads down, Jesus tells us “heads up. Be alert”. Look. See. Know. Be on guard. Stand up and raise your heads - - because your redemption is drawing near. Because when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
What does Jesus mean when he says that the kingdom of God is drawing near?
Way back in the 12th century, St. Bernard-de-Clairvaux, the patron saint of our francophone community, wrote about Advent as the threefold coming of the divine into our midst. There is the Incarnation, the coming of God into our midst as Jesus, the word become flesh, born as a child, which though it happened two thousand years ago, will be the fulfilment again this year of our Advent drama. There is the coming of the divine at the end of time, or perhaps beyond time, that great vision of resolution and redemption to which we look forward. But then there is the in-between, the daily coming of the divine into our midst here and now, in the present, in the ordinary and extraordinary people and events of our lives. Maybe Jesus is talking about this “in-between” Advent when he speaks of the kingdom of God drawing near.
Because the apocalyptic language of the gospel doesn’t just refer to future events. It also captures in symbolic language the happenings, the stressors, and the suffering of our present lives. When you experience these things taking place, know that the kingdom of God is near. Because it is precisely in times of fear and distress that we can become most aware of God’s presence, of God’s drawing near to us, of the still small voice beside us that says “Be not afraid”, of the companion that liberates us from distress, redeems our suffering and gives us hope.
It’s not that God isn’t with us when things are going well, it’s more that in those times we just don’t notice. We’re caught up in our life projects, we’re placing one big stone upon another as we create the grand structure of our lives. Often, we have neither the time nor the inclination to notice God with us. We’re too caught up in our own stuff. But that stuff is fragile.
As they’re walking beside the temple, Jesus’ disciples look up at the massive walls towering above them and marvel, “Look at these great stones.” And Jesus says, “As for these things you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
It’s an apocalyptic vision of the end times to be sure. It’s a prediction of the destruction of the temple which took place in 70AD as well. But it’s also an image of what happens in our own lives. Stones that are built up are thrown down. Jobs end, relationships fall apart, health falters. Our instincts tell us to be afraid, to lie low, to keep our heads down.
But Jesus tells us to stand up and raise our heads. When life falls apart, know that the kingdom of God is near.
That sounds counter-intuitive. In fact it’s tempting to assume just the opposite, that God is absent in our distress. But my experience has been that it is precisely in those moments when the carefully arranged stones of my life, the structures that I had spent years building, come tumbling down that I become most aware of God’s presence. A presence that is forgiving and comforting. A presence that is supportive and loving. A creative presence that reveals beauty even in the midst of pain. It is in the midst of fear, distress and confusion that we become most aware of God drawing near to us, of Emmanuel, God with us, coming to us again and again and again.
So there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life. When you see these things taking place, stand up and raise your heads, and know that the kingdom of God is near.
Homily Yr C Advent 1, Dec 2 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36
Image by Coconino National Forest, Creative Commons