Isn’t it a strange time of year? I’ve always loved Advent and I’ve come in these years to love Thanksgiving yet I never know at this time of year which way to turn, which way to look. This year especially it’s been ambiguous. I’ve had two dear friends here to celebrate with and we’ve found ourselves trying to recapture past experiences of cooking great feasts together and relish a companionship that can only be intermittent these days. And so we find ourselves looking forward to the next time we’ll be together and planning ways to let it happen. But though the past is always with us, and the future never far away, always the present presses in with its own mystery as we grapple together with advent homilies and the daily doings of God in our lives.
This time on the cusp between past and future is a fragile and glorious one. It’s the time of Advent. The time when the clock’s stately sweep moves without faltering, smoothly, from one epoch to the next. The monotonous tick of the clock hardly captures anything of our experience of time because our time is always a time of significance. What difference is there between the dying instant of the last watch of the night and the first glimmer of dawn? Nothing and everything.
My Celtic ancestors had a thing about such “times between times”: the twilight and the dawning, times when the veil between this world and the Other grows thin, the borders of reality waver, and anything might come pouring, half-seen, across the threshold to keep this world of mortals on edge. Things awful or things glorious but always things of significance.
As we cross the sword-bridge at this time-between-times and step from Ordinary time into Advent what things come pouring across the threshold to make our lives significant?
I can’t decide whether Union Square this last week was intent upon exorcising the significance of the season of Advent or was just anticipating the feast with a vengeance. For there, with its glowing lights and angel choirs, its stuffed toys and glittering prizes, the Christ-Child has already come, is already in stock and available for purchase. While here, in this place, we have hardly begun to wait and hardly begun to wonder whether that waiting will be more dread than yearning. Our readings offer us both: a coming time of justice and safety and security but also a time of distress and fear and foreboding. And our secular scriptures – the advertisers – offer us similarly mixed messages with confused images of Christmas warmth and generosity – all hearth-glow and ruddy cheeks – neck and neck with needed panaceas of the pursuit of plenty – for heartburn and headache.
Yes, we live in two worlds but right now the veil draws thin and the times drip with significance. I read recently that new technology has given rise to speculation that the moon might be an ideal laser-powered billboard. After all nobody owns it – it’s free real-estate just begging to bear the logo of Nike or Coca-Cola. There might indeed soon be signs in the heavens.
Speaking of Nike, I hear that while they make their profits from sweatshop labour in the Philippines and while they blitz the inner-cities with advertising for footwear which can only be afforded by theft, they also support at least one Jesuit school with extravagant building programs. The only price being to wear the logo and ignore the pain of taking blood-money.
Or I read yesterday, that in a survey, 1000 Americans claimed they would spend as much time in worship these holidays as in shopping. 16 hours they said. Do you believe that? Or as the article said can it only be true if the it’s the same 16 hours! When shopping is worship the veil has indeed drawn thin!
Or take El Niño. The scapegoat for every ill from unseasonable weather to stock market craziness. Blame it on El Niño: El Niño, the Christ-Child! The Christ-Child is coming and his advent disturbs the heavens and brings turmoil on earth.
So what must we do to be ready for his coming? How must we spend our lives this Advent, this time between times? Well in defiance of the reigning wisdom I say forget the instructions to make space, make time, to pray and ponder lest the real meaning of the coming Christ child get lost in consumer frenzy. Forget it because we live not in two worlds, one silent and serene and the other crazy, but in one. Because the veil has drawn thin and all things have their significance and El Niño is coming to this one world. And all borders have lost their meaning but one. All boundaries have blurred but one: the cut made by the sword of justice. The Christ-Child is coming and his coming means justice. But justice is a sharp and ambiguous sword. For some it means freedom and release and a longed-for joy. For those who need liberating, who bear oppression, who suffer injustice. But for those who impose the slavery, who ignore the oppression, who profit from the injustice, it is will be a day of dread, a day of loss.
So do we know our need for liberation or do we fear what we might lose? There’s an Advent question for us. May it burn in our hearts. May it give us heartburn.
Let us pray that God make our hearts strong in our love for justice so that we long for Christ’s coming, so that we hear his words as a promise and blessing. Stand erect, hold your heads up high, for your liberation is near at hand.
Jesus said to his disciples: “there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. On the earth, the other nations will be in anguish, distraught at the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding in anticipation of what is coming upon the earth. And in the heavens the powers will be shaken. After that, people will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory.
When these things begin to happen, stand erect, hold your heads up high, for your liberation is near at hand.
Be on guard lest your hearts grow heavy with indulgence and drunkenness and the anxieties of life and that great day take you unawares like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may be able to escape whatever is in prospect and stand secure before the Son of Man.
November 30th, 1997