“Their sound has gone out into all lands…” So goes a bit of Psalm 19. Our sermons now go out into all lands on the Internet. So I hesitate to admit what I’m about to, lest I expose myself to international ridicule and opprobrium. Others will have to decide whether to suppress this confession in the electronic media: some days, when I feel like I could use a little self-indulgence, I make my way over to Burdick’s Chocolate Shop. Then I order a pot of tea and “a little somethin’”. The “little somethin’” is usually a slice of their chocolate mousse cake: a thin but intense layer of chocolate ganache on top, then a thick, creamy layer of chocolate mousse, and at the bottom, a layer of chocolate sponge cake—soaked in Poire William, (that’s the liqueur that comes with a whole pear inside the bottle). Three clearly differentiated layers unified in a common theme: chocolate! Three manifestations of chocolate in one glorious epiphany. Hallelujah for chocolate! It makes me happy to know that something in this world can be so delicious.
Although Advent is more first course than dessert (it’s the beginning of the Church Year), it has a richly flavored, multi-layered character. And stormy prophets and apocalyptic writers not-withstanding, Advent is a delight, a time of anticipations and great expectations.
Advent has been around a long time—not forever, but since at least the 6th century AD. And here we are again: Advent 2012 AD. Life in a monastic community has rhythm, rhythm largely synchronized with astronomical events. There is the daily rhythm of prayer at sunrise (more or less), prayer at the sun’s zenith (more or less), prayer at the setting of the sun, and again at the fall of night. There is the weekly rhythm, the seven day cycle related to the phases of the moon, more or less. And, of course, the yearly cycle, with major feasts roughly determined by solar solstices and equinoxes.
There’s not much about Christian feast days as we know them in the Bible (the first Christians observed Jewish holidays)—the days of celebrating events related to the life of Jesus came along later, some several centuries later. Much of our calendar didn’t really become established until well after Christianity was the religion of the Roman Empire. And since holidays are important to people everywhere, some previously pagan festivities were “baptized” and became Christian holy days. There is not much in the Bible to suggest that the birth of Jesus ought to be December 25, but that’s where we have it. There are different theories about how it got there, which I’ll leave to you and the Great Google, who knows all…
The significant thing for us is that each of the holy days and holy seasons of the Church Year shines a light on some facet of the Christian mystery, the Christian vision of life. Or, we could say, each holy day and season shines the light of a particular facet of the Christian mystery on us. We engage the mystery, the vision; the vision, the mystery, engages us.
Advent is a particularly rich season because it has multiple layers. The weeks before Christmas prepare us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Son of God “in great humility,” as the collect puts it (Advent means “coming”). So we read prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures, and we hear the New Testament stories leading up to Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. The first Advent, the first “coming” of Christ.
And Advent also anticipates the Second Coming: the coming of Christ in glorious majesty, on clouds! “Lo, he comes with clouds descending…,” as we sang so stirringly. The second Advent. We tend to forget, or at least downplay, our belief in the Second Coming of Christ. We’ll hear a lot of readings about this “day of the Lord”. Will it be wonderful, a great restoration? Will it be terrible, with unimaginable destruction? Both? The Scriptures are all over the place on this. We’ll just have to wait and see…
And Advent is still more, a triple layer season. We can also speak of a Third Advent. “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself…” So begins the collect for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The daily visitation, the daily coming of God, the daily advent of Jesus Christ into our lives: a Third Advent.
The Third Advent is in some ways the one most real to us, the most present to us. We live in the meantime between the first and second coming of Christ, we live in what we call the present. The present is a dynamic thing: always in flux, always on the move. Always on the move to what we call the future. God the Holy Spirit fills this flux, this fluidity; the Spirit of Christ animates this shifting, changing, transforming dynamic from present into future. The Living Word of God sets all things in motion—and keeps them moving. Our experience of this present moment is in some ways like surfing a great wave, with an enormous surge of energy behind us, carrying us forward toward—well, toward….toward whatever—God only knows where this great wave of the present will take us.
But all things are in God: all yesterdays, all tomorrows, all the past, all the future, all that we are to become—all this and more is in God. God’s daily visitation brings the future with him in a way we can’t see, but in a way that can make itself felt. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it this way: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” The pull of the future, the gravitational pull of the future changes us, we then change the future in this mysterious, this subtle interplay with the Divine Presence. The great surge of the past behind us, the irresistible attraction of the future before us: this great wave of Divine energies is beneath our feet even now.
What we are to become—and that is already envisioned in the heart of God—what we are to become, what we are becoming through the “daily visitation” of the Holy Spirit, animates us, transforms us even now.
This happens not only in lives attuned to God, aware of God. It happens on a larger, even global scale. In the Book of Revelation we read about the heavenly Jerusalem coming down from heaven. This vision of a new order, of all things set right, is at work in the world even now—and not just among Christians. The Hebrew prophets’ vision of things set right exerts its gravitational attraction upon us even now. As ugly and violent as the human condition can be, we’ve actually seen some pretty remarkable movement in this direction in our lifetime. The vision of the New Jerusalem, the future Jerusalem, the true holy city, is not just a vision: it is a living word, the Living Word, a living wave of energies, at work in the world even now. “Their sound has gone out into all lands…”
In Advent we contemplate the one who was, who is and who is to come; the one in whom all time comes together, past, present, future; the one whose vision of what is to be, what we are to become, is at work in us even now.
In this season, and in every season, but especially this season of Advent we not only contemplate, but we worship the One who came, but who is still here. The one who is to come, but who is here already. Time present, time past, time future—three layers of time, bound magically together, bound so deliciously together in the vision of Christ.
Hallelujah for the vision of Christ! Hallelujah for the Christ who shines his light upon us. Hallelujah for the One who is, who was and who is to come! The alpha and the omega, the first and the last.