Today, Sunday November 29, is the first Sunday of Advent, and so we enter upon the new Church year. It is still 2020, but we are surely justified a sigh of relief as we look ahead to new beginnings, new hope. Covid 19 began to make a devastating difference in our lives back in March, early in Lent. Then we (some of us only minimally distressed, other devastated in ongoing ways) walked and suffered our way through the rest of Lent, and then the whole of the Easter season concluding at Pentecost, and then the many weeks of “ordinary time” (in a most un-ordinary year) that culminated last week with the feast of Christ the King. But now once more we await in hope the Christ who once more arrives in our darkness.
For many of us, Advent is the most beautiful season in the year, four weeks of watching and waiting for God. But at the beginning of this season we need to ask ourselves: what kind of waiting do we have in mind? We have options, depending on our state of heart and mind this time around. I suggest three of these options: anxious waiting; argumentative waiting; serene waiting.
First, we can wait anxiously. Today’s passage from the Gospel according to Mark does not offer a perfectly serene moment of contemplative waiting. Rather, Mark 13 seems to highlight a rather exhausting waiting, on high alert, a bit anxious:
"But about the day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away. He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13.32-37)
So many things can cause delay, things can go wrong. Perhaps he may delay or change his mind and not come at all. And who knows what she will say and do when she arrives? He might be in a mood we might find consoling or terrifying. Waiting is important, but watching and waiting without certainty is hard. We may fall asleep and miss the great arrival. Like the young women in Matthew 25 (a few weeks ago), we may start fussing over details, burn out, running out of oil for our lamps, and miss God’s arrival altogether. Advent might indeed be a hard season for some of us this year, before a harder Christmas. The first thing is to be honest about where we are this time around.
A second kind of waiting is a bit more dramatic, even melodramatic — as if we shake our fist at the heavens and tell God to hurry up. This mood is evoked vividly in our first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapters 63-64. (Read the whole of this prophecy if you can, 63.7 all the way to the end of 64.) The prophet knows well who God is and what God has done — but now the question is, where is this God?
"Where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock?
Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them, who sent his glorious arm of power to be at Moses’ right hand?
Where is he who divided the waters before them, to gain for himself everlasting renown?
Where is he who led them through the depths? (63.11-13)
The basic plea is not subtle at all, and has grandeur to it:
"Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would melt before you! (64.1)
But there is a complaint woven into the prophecy. Isaiah feels obliged to remind God of how present and active God was — in the past:
"When you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (64.3-4)
That's what God is like, what God has done — in the past. But what about now? “We don’t need you, O Lord, just when we are good — we need you when we are bad, when the world is a total mess (like right now)!”
"You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin, you were angry. How then can we be saved? (64.5)
Near the end of the long argument with God, full responsibility is decisively thrown onto God:
"Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter. We are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord. Do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (64.8-9)
As if to say: it is your fault, O Lord, if we keep messing things up. You are the creator, you made us as we are. Remember how you formed us out of the clay of the earth (Genesis 2)? It is up to you to mold us, fix us, make the world go right. Come down now!
Try it — complaining to God might be a refreshing way to begin Advent.
Or maybe we are just tired, and really do want this Advent to be a season of very quiet waiting. So there is a third way: simple waiting — patient, quiet, wordless, unworried. This kind of waiting for God is like waiting for the sun to rise. The Psalms have a number of beautiful passages with this theme:
"God is within her, she will not fail: God will help her at break of day. (Psalm 46.5)
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. (112.4-5)
I call out to you: save me and I will keep your statutes! I rise before dawn and cry for help. I have put my hope in your word. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. (119.146-148)
Or, to use another image, consider the Gospel read at daily Mass the other day, Friday of this past week:
"Look at the fig tree and all the trees.When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21.29-31)
Even in the dead of winter, keep an eye on the trees; watch the seemingly barren branches; watch and you will see: eventually new buds and leaves and flowers will spring from branches that seemed to have no life in them. 2020 has been a longer wintry season, more death than life. But watch: God is coming again, the sun is rising. Spring too will come, life will return.
So how will we watch and wait during Advent 2020? Take a deep breath, even on this question, go slowly. There is lot's of time in Advent if you don't rush it. Take the first week of Advent to figure out for yourself how you will wait — anxiously or argumentatively or serenely — in Advent, 2020. (Or maybe a little of each...)
Here are some hymns to listen to. Two versions of Taize’s Wait for the Lord, a first and a second. Or try Dan Schutte's A Time Will Come for Singing. And, of course, there is always the very familiar O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
(An earlier version of this written homily can be found in the recorded Mass for this Sunday.)