This is the first Sunday in Advent – the first Sunday in the liturgical year, launching our season of preparation and anticipation of God’s breaking into our lives in the flesh in new and unexpected ways. Paradoxically, while we say we are readying ourselves for embracing God’s new thing, we tend to focus our attention in this season around what has become for most of us the most familiar and comforting of biblical narratives involving the shepherds, the angels, and the babe born in the manger.
If we are not careful, it is easy to be lulled into engaging the scripture passages of this time in the same way we consume the comfort foods that are laid before us around the holidays. They may be very appealing as we gobble them down quickly, but particularly as we get older, we might be better nourished by savoring the more familiar passages more mindfully and expanding our diet to include some of the other offerings on the table.
It is in that spirit that we are invited to begin our Advent journey by looking at Mark 13:24-37, which is anything but warm and fuzzy. It begins with the phrase, “But in those days, after that suffering…,” which we know means we should look before the prescribed passage to understand what days and what suffering Mark is referencing.
I don’t know about you, but frankly I do not want to look back to the prior verses to learn about the apocalyptic prophecies the gospel writer is putting into Jesus’ words – especially since I may be forced to consider whether those prior verses are prophecy of a time of suffering yet to come. The year 2020 has been apocalyptic enough without Mark giving me any more potential suffering to worry about!
Mark does not let us off the hook though. Even if we choose not to look back at the nature of the suffering behind us, the next verses are not all that comforting either as they describe a darkened sun and moon and stars falling! In other words, we are called to enter this most hopeful of liturgical seasons by allowing ourselves to be in that place where there is suffering behind us, uncertain and potentially fearful times ahead of us, and no way to the other side but to go through them.
This is what makes the Christian new year so much more meaningful than the secular New Year that will follow in six weeks or so. The image our culture lifts up every New Year’s Eve is one where we are quick to kick the old year and everything it represents out the door so we can welcome in baby New Year expecting it to be better just because it is new.
Remember how we all looked forward to saying goodbye to 2019 so we could embrace 2020?
We could not foresee how in 2020 we would have walked through the valley of the shadow of death and mourned everything from our loved ones and our neighbors in some cases, to our livelihoods and routines in other cases. We did not anticipate the uncovering of so many of the societal inequities which have cast burdens on so many of us in ways convicting all of us to change the ways we live out our call to be neighbor to one another.
It would be so tempting to just kick 2020 out into the sea of forgetfulness as quickly as possible and repeat the pattern of embracing baby New Year 2021. What is that old saying about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
The good news of our scripture passage is we need not repeat such circular thinking, nor should we even seek to do it. We can go deeper.
We need not try to deny the reality or consequences of the suffering behind us, nor be paralyzed by the reality of the anxiety and fear for what my lie ahead. Instead, there can be a blessing to be found by allowing ourselves to be present amidst an uncomfortable-now when we recognize God is with us.
The Son of God, who bids us to dare draw near to the manger again in hope, reminds us this first Sunday of our Advent journey, he is the same one who gazes on us with compassion – literally suffering alongside us – even as he forgives us from the cross for our role in both his suffering and all human suffering. When we our gaze to meet his in the most painful of moments, we recognize a love in the eyes of the Son of God that empowers us to see the image of God again in our neighbors and ourselves.
Moreover, we can be transformed by that love into those with greater compassion for our past choices as well as those of others. We can make peace with who we have been, and allow God to refashion us into the vessels of peace and justice God would have us be. We can be empowered to step into an uncertain future with the assurance of God’s loving presence in the Son of Man who is to come.
Come, Lord Jesus! Happy New Year!
You can listen to the PresbySpeak podcast of this reflection on iTunes and SoundCloud, or view it on YouTube: