Monday, December 3, 2007

What Advent Is For

The texts for this Sunday are Isaiah 2:1-5 (“swords into plowshares”), Romans 13:11-14 (“put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh”), and
Matthew 24:36-44 (the coming of the Son of Man).

By Friday morning, I understood that if I wanted to clear away the leaves from my yard, that was the day to do it. In light—or dark—of the forecast for the weekend, that day might be the last one in the near future without wind, and with it still in the balmy 30’s I resolved “Now is the time.”

My actual Friday was conspiring not with me, but against me. Still, by 3:00 I’d pulled away from here and landed there, in my front yard, my new Toro blower and mulcher in hand, 75 feet of extension cord tethering me to the garage outlet, like a space man on a moonwalk.

Isn’t it impressive how quickly and convincingly it gets dark, at this time of year? With half my front yard done, I’d lost the day. But not the battle. On came the outdoor lights and up went my adrenalin, nudged on by the fact that we had a dinner date to keep.

On one side of us, leaf-raking neighbors had hung up their tools and gone indoors. On the other side, neighbors had pulled into the driveway, gotten out of the car, and, peering across the yard, called out, “Peter, is that you?” It didn’t take much to imagine the unspoken question, “Isn’t it time to stop?”

That was occurring to me, as well. Working with an electric mulcher, you’ve got to keep a healthy distance between the cord and the vacuum, and I will say it’s fortunate that extension cords are brightly colored. When you mulch with this gizmo, your shoulder bag needs emptying, and in the wayback of our yard, beyond where the spotlight hits, a row of spruces stood in the way. Each time, I pretty much recalled how to avoid getting slapped by a branch… But when the last drop got made, I felt relieved. It had been dawning on me (or was it dusking on me?) that works of darkness can be dangerous.

I’ve sketched this somewhat pathetic little vignette because I’m counting on it to feel rather like the physical challenge of our short season between now and Christmas Day: piles of tasks to clear out of the way, too little time to do that in. A risk of danger if we push too hard. But also this strong sense that it’s time to do what’s expected, and we like the feeling when we succeed—when we deck the halls, play Santa, cook the goose, survive the festivities, shake the cold, and not fall apart. Oh, and be joyful. And help all around us discover the true inner meaning of Christmas, as we spend high quality time with everyone.

That should work. 24 days. On your mark, get set…

And that would not be what Advent is about.

By the way, did you hear that ABC Television has cancelled Advent this year? I saw it last night on that little banner down in the lower right of the screen, where a jovial Santa announced “25 Days of Christmas”!

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “Aren’t there 12 days of Christmas? And isn’t this Advent?”

I’m guessing that Marketing had informed Programming that if 12 days were good, 25 would be better; and why wait until later? Why not have them now?”

We’d best have an answer. We’re being asked.

To help us hear what the short season of Advent is for, we have a lesson today from St. Paul. I realize that he may not be the first person you’d imagine inviting to your holiday table, but his message is timely for a season when the hours of daylight are outnumbered by those of darkness. Paul is no stranger to the dangers of darkness, which, he says, include patterns and habits of which we are ashamed. He names a few destructive behaviors—we could list our own, very possibly including, at this time of year, two from his list, quarreling and jealousy. Whatever might be in our lists, it’s possible that our shadier behaviors might all have in common the basic darkness we share: some degree of addiction, some degree of greed, some degree of fear.

Yes, Advent is about the real dangers of our darkness. Even when the addictive personality, or the greed, or the fearing isn’t our own but belongs to someone we love, someone we live with, it’s still ours to deal with. And even when that darkness isn’t under our own roof, it is a driving force behind so much that influences us: a lot of advertising, a lot of television, a lot of what happens over the World Wide Web, and a lot that happens in our checkbooks. A lot, St. Paul would say, calls us to make provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Instead, Paul preaches, recognize how far gone our darkness is and how intimately near at hand the daylight of Jesus Christ is: Choose to live by his light. Each way you do that, each time you do that, you prepare yourself and all around you to take your part in the new creation that God is making out of the stuff and energy and created beings of this tired old world.

Whatever you and I do during Advent to prepare for Christmas Day, let’s make it also fit that new creation that God is stirring out of the stuff and spirit of ordinary life. In the gifts we buy, the parties we design, the decorating we do, the money we spend, the communicating we do with friends and family, and the reaching-out we do to provide for others, let’s imagine at least one or two ways to do it so as to help those we love better serve the new order, the new day, that conserves energy, preserves species, builds peace, loves justice, honors the poor, and respects children.

Advent, tiny among the Church’s seasons but with a powerful pull if we will feel it, is for sharpening our awareness of what God is doing, and letting that awareness shape our own doing. So let me show you some tools you might take home today, to sharpen your attention to God.

“Waiting” is the title of an Advent meditation guide for students, written, I believe, by students and published by the Higher Education Ministries Arena. Perhaps you have a college student in your family who would enjoy this. Perhaps it will speak to you and you’re not a student but you’ll take one anyway!

“Living in Hope” is the title of another booklet, Advent meditations from the writing of Henri Nouwen, a gifted spiritual guide.

“A Circle of Love: Family Devotions for Advent” by Caroline Pignat, has been given by our Youth Minister, Jacki Petrino, to each family at the Advent wreath workshop this morning. There are more copies at the foot of the aisle.

“Living Light was Born One Night” by Arden Mead is a collection of Advent devotions for children. “What Shall We Name Him?” is a family Advent book of Jesus’s names, also by Arden Mead.

And calendars are in our tool kit. There’s an array of Advent calendars, the kind you hold up to the light and open a tiny window each day, and read its verse. There’s also a cartoon calendar designed to quietly evangelize from whatever bulletin board or strategic spot you might find for it in your personal orbit in your space, this week.

I’m going to close by reading to you a sample from those first of those collections of Advent meditations, from tomorrow’s entry:

“Ah, waiting. I once read that the average American will spend some astronomical number of hours of his or her life waiting: waiting in line, waiting at stop lights, waiting in the so cleverly dubbed ‘waiting room’…

“As I look back on my Advents passed, it’s no wonder that they have skated right by me. The time between lighting the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent and singing ‘Silent Night’ on Christmas Eve has been spent waiting, but not for God.

“In this busy season, it is so difficult to think of waiting as anything more than a waste of time and preparing as anything more than energy spent, yet it is in this season that the calendar of our faith calls us to rethink the meaning of the word ‘waiting.’

“Our journey through Advent does not allow us to stand idly, arms crossed, toes tapping impatiently. Rather, it calls us into meditation and preparation to receive Christ into our lives and into this world once again. For me, this Advent presents an opportunity to tear the pages out of my ‘same old story,’ and begin anew…”

That was written by Kelly Rand, who ends the mediation with this prayer: “Teach us to wait in new ways this Advent season. Prepare us to receive your grace and respond with love and grace.”