Homily 1st Advent 2016
Isaiah 2: 1-5; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44
John M Hayes
Today is the first day of Advent, the ancient cycle of the Church’s liturgical year begins with four weeks of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Every year we hear again the scriptures remind us of the preciousness of time, that what we do with the time we are allotted and how we use our freedom will determine who we become and how we stand in God’s eyes. Again, it is time to wake up.
All of the ancients in every culture cultivated a kind of stoic wisdom about time, about the great cycle of life, the great chain of being linked across the decades and centuries. They meditated on the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, the inevitability of change, contingency and loss, and the inevitability of death. Biblical time overturns that vision. Christ disrupts that stoic dream of time. Time doesn’t just go in a circle; rather history is mysteriously hurtling towards a conclusion. Time begins in Christ and will culminate in Christ.
In A Time To Keep, Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner alludes to the Great Transition – the radical transformation of life as lived just a century or two ago in many lands, more recently in some, and still continuing unchanged in others – when life had a universal and predictable shape: one married in late teens or very early twenties, worked most often in oppressive, insecure and dangerous jobs to survive and support one’s children, and if one was lucky perhaps lived to see the first of one’s grandchildren before departing this life before the age of fifty. For the vast majority of humanity for eons before, life was nasty, brutish and mercifully brief. Wander around any 19th century graveyard and note the scores of young women who died in childbirth and the many, many children dead long before maturity. Life was fragile. Disease and war insured that death’s shadow was always near and sharply felt. Death’s shadow marked life with an acute awareness of the existential fact that we are creatures who live for a brief moment in time.
The Great Transition effected great changes in human life: people count on living twice as long, and with reliable supplies of nutritious food and competent medical care live well; people universally have access to more than rudimentary education, can travel great distances with relative ease, communicate instantaneously with people all over the globe. These undeniably good things make for a more creative and fulfilling life. But Dr. Radner asserts the Great Transition has lulled us into forgetfulness of death. Having many more years, we now live as if our days are not finite and numbered. Death has become a distant possibility too conveniently evaded. This creates a toxic spiritual distortion.
We have a distorted obliviousness to the most basic existential fact that we are finite creatures who live in time and owe that fragile finite existence entirely to the graciousness of God. This Great Transition creates a great illusion: that our lives are our own and we are free to shape them as our wills dictate, without any accountability beyond our own satisfaction. Lost is the awareness that we are created from nothing and that nothing about our lives had to be. As unflattering as it sounds we are all ontologically unnecessary. Lost is the acute sense certainly many of our grandparents and great grandparents knew well: that life is pure gratuitous gift that must be surrendered at a moment’s notice and we will be called to account for how we used our gifts and our freedom in the time given us. How we live and how we chose shapes the person we become.
The great enlightenment that is The Great Transition can be that sleep that St. Paul warns us to shake off: the sleep of illusion and idolatry, the ego’s dream that we creates ourselves and have no one to answer to for how we live our lives. We need to wake up to the core reality of our existence for as the scripture tells “the night is far gone and the day is near: lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are called in our baptism to live with acute awareness that we are children and creatures of God, and that our lives are not our own but God’s, and that we are called to use our lives not for our own pleasures and ambitions, but responsibly in love and service of others.
There are some who misunderstand today’s gospel as a description of the Rapture: that Christ’s second coming will mean that the good souls are whisked away from this vale of tears and the bad folks will stay behind. They are not reading very carefully.
The kingdom of God is not an escape hatch to some unearthly place; that’s actually Gnosticism not Christianity, and there has always been plenty of Gnosticism masquerading as Christianity for the simple reason that it appeals to the ego’s elitist wishes and it doesn’t demand much. The kingdom of God realized will be this good earth restored to what God intended it to be, a human community at last living in right relationship to God and in peace with one another,. This is the vision of the prophet Isaiah: that time when humans “ will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. For this Christ came and took on humanity’s burden, for this Christ gave his own life in love for the life of this world.
Jesus alludes to tides and being swept away. The tide that carries men and women away is too often the tide of mob violence and scapegoating hatred. Our history is rife with it. Jesus describes people doing the ordinary business of human life – eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage and then suddenly they are swept up in that fatal tide. As suddenly as that all too human contagion ignites, as suddenly as violence takes over human affairs yet again, just that suddenly comes the Son of Man, the Prince of Peace. We cannot break that cycle on our own. The ages longed for the coming of Christ for just this reason.
Jesus does not get swept away in that tide. Ironically Jesus is the one left behind in the tide of violence. Jesus is left behind and crucified and abandoned in the rising tide of violence. No rapture, no escape-hatch. Indeed we heard in last week’s gospel that on the cross Jesus is taunted by the crowd when no heavenly rescue mission is being launched on his behalf, no show of righteous divine vengeance. Rather it is in the mystery of the resurrection, our non-violent God affirms Jesus as truly Christ, and inaugurates a new age of God’s kingdom on earth.
We are all very aware that we may very well be about to enter a very dark time in the history of our nation. Our government is for all appearances falling into the hands of those whose rhetoric has appealed to mob violence and scapegoating hatred. We cannot now know exactly what will mean or what will be required of us. We do know this. We are called to follow Jesus to the cross, to stand outside whatever rising tide of violence may come, to stand with those who would be victimized, and to witness and suffer for truth.
This must begin again as always with honest wrestling and confrontation with ourselves. We need openness to searching often demanding light of the Holy Spirit’s direction. We may need to change our ways and re-order our priorities. The gospel says the Spirit comes like a thief in the night, to steal away our dreams and illusions, but also to lead us to truth and open the possibilities of prophetic holiness. Conversion is a hard long slough of radical honesty with ourselves: about who we are, how we fall short of our greatness, how we evade the truth of our lives and our place in history. God is always with us in that work, giving us the grace to know rightly, the wisdom to see clearly, and the courage to act. We are never alone.
Most of you know that I was in Cape Town, South Africa the last couple of weeks. South Africa is in many ways a mirror of our own country: a place of astounding beauty and great natural resources and wealth, and an horrific violent history of oppression, exploitation and injustice. Twenty-six years after apartheid’s end, Cape Town is just slightly altered contrast in obscene opposites, first-world white wealth on high security and most of its black population living in the worst of third world poverty. There as here, whites and blacks mostly live at opposite sides of the Great Transition.
Robben Island is the Alcatraz of Cape Town, the island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in a small cell. Now a museum Robben Island accusingly faces the gleaming corporate towers of Cape Town and confronts South Africa with its violent history, its suppression of the human spirit and truth, and its betrayal of its Christianity.
Mandela’s time that cell was a time of soul work. A transformed man emerged from those decades of inner work, a man worthy and ready to start the work of healing his nation, a man whose authentic spiritual authority was grounded in his long confrontation with his own reality. Mandela said:
“…the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”
Our lives will soon be taken up in the annual frenzy of shopping and parties, and much of that is a good thing to be enjoyed. But it is vital that we live Advent also on another level, beginning again the hard work of turning our minds and hearts to God, to begin again to become more deeply people of integrity, honesty and humility, to have the wisdom and courage to resist evil and to be that peace that the world yearns for.