Reflections During Advent, Part I
Isaiah 64:1. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—…
Mark 13:24–25, 37. [Jesus said to them….] “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….And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
The year 2020 has been a year of dislocation. For people who have lost loved ones, homes, livelihoods, or their health, the year has been unimaginably devastating. I am one of the lucky ones; thus far, I have had to endure only the inconveniences of social distancing and mask wearing. But even for people like me, 2020 has been physically and emotionally exhausting. Everyone is tired of the barrage of bad news, of having to stand by at a distance as both friends and strangers suffer, of feeling powerless to help in any substantial way. We are all tired of racial, ecological, and economic injustices. We are tired of the hatred, lies, threats, and sheer vitriol that tear the fabric of our society. We are tired of being afraid—afraid for our own health and the health of loved ones, afraid for the stability of our democracy and our planet, afraid for the future of our children and grandchildren. Will they have clean water and air? Will they live in a free and fair society? As we enter this season of Advent, we bring with us our grief, our anger, our fatigue, our fears, and our uncertainty.
Oddly, the first Sunday in Advent turns out to be a good match for all that. I tend to think of Advent as a season of expectant joy—which it can be, of course. But joy is not where Advent begins—at least not in liturgical churches that follow a common lectionary. Instead, each year the season opens with the “little apocalypse” passage of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. In that portion of those gospels, disaster figures prominently. This year, Mark shows us Jesus as he speaks in cataclysmic celestial images: the sun and moon go dark, the stars fall, and even “the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” For most of my life, when the world has seemed relatively stable, I have not dwelled on those images. I thought talk of dislocation and destruction on such an epic scale belonged to another place and time.
This year, however, the apocalyptic words of Jesus seem fitting. I don’t know whether “the powers in heaven” have been shaken, but something in me has been shaken. Scorching wildfires, flooding shores, twisting winds, disintegrating icebergs. Children taken from their mothers’ arms. Cities racked with violence and people dying in the street, or alone in a hospital room. Peoples’ breath stolen by callous indifference. Or by a virus. Not knowing if the next person I see is contagious with that virus—or whether I could get it and infect others. Glimpsing the possible erosion of democracy and wondering if its walls could tumble down.
Advent this year looks different because the world looks different, especially when seen through slightly-fogged up glasses above the mask I now wear whenever I leave home. This year, I find myself paying more attention to the apocalyptic words of Jesus, and oddly, I take some comfort in them, for they make me feel that he at least understands. They also suggest that life will not always be this way. The story is not over. Keep awake, Jesus says, at the end of this passage. By which I think he means: Yes, 2020 has been rough. The world has changed—and is changing still. Now comes Advent. Bring your grief, your anger, your fears, your fatigue, your uncertainty. Don’t give up. Stay present: Something new is coming. You don’t want to miss it.