Ecclesiasticus 48:1-11 & Matthew 17:9-13
Advent is one of my favorite seasons because it invites us as liturgical Christians to contemplate a vision of time that is circular and cyclical, rather than a merely linear arc. On the one hand, the Christ we meet in Advent assures us that he is the Beginning and the End, the Word and Wisdom of God present at creation and the Omega point in whom all things converge. One day, the story that we are reading will reach its apparent conclusion, and the last page will declare in bold, black letters: “The End.” On the other hand, we are assured that as we turn that final page, we will know in an entirely new way that the Story has only just begun. Likewise, as we follow Jesus through our own experience of past, present, and future, our individual journey can seem quite finite. But in the context of the great Story of salvation stewarded by the Church, the continual re-telling enacted and embodied, contemplated and savored each Advent, each Christmastide, each Epiphany, helps us orient ourselves in relation to a circle and a cycle. At the center of the circle is Christ; its circumference is a lifetime comprised of moments when we have turned – or are turning – or will turn — toward that center. In each turning moment, we know in our bones: we’ve been here before; we’ll be here again. Yet each encounter holds the promise of new grace. We light, we extinguish, we re-light the candles, and points of flickering light slowly connect the dots. Like the gradual, steady, inward motion of a spiral, we are drawn ever closer to that mysterious moment when, as the First Letter of John puts it, “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
In Advent, I find it easier to rest in a posture of simple, open-hearted and open-minded expectancy. In contrast, I find my experience of Christmas laden with layers of expectation; and I suspect I am not alone. Let me clarify what I see as the difference. We might think of expectancy as an inner attitude of waiting without any definite notion of precisely what it is we are waiting for. We know that it’s significant, possibly even life-changing, but that’s all. We might think of a first kiss, or the moment just before we were clothed in a monastic habit: that breathless moment of anticipation, a mild terror mingled with rapture, and no true idea what to expect. Expectations, in contrast, are usually the result of accumulated past experience. When we await something with expectation, we may be more apt to concern ourselves with how the experience to come will measure up to last time. The more that we do something, of course, the more likely it is that we will experience expectations.
In our gospel passage this morning, Peter, James, and John are accompanying Jesus down the mountain following a moment of supreme and unparalleled expectancy. Never had they dreamed of glimpsing their Teacher, Jesus, shining like the sun and talking with Moses and Elijah. But as they descend back to earth, their prior religious conditioning prompts a question regarding expectations: “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Amid the many traditions of messianic expectation at the time, one tradition held that the fiery spirit or bodily reappearance of Elijah would prefigure the Messiah’s arrival. Perhaps Jesus is more concerned with inspiring messianic expectancy than messianic expectation. He replies that it is not wrong to expect Elijah, but that this expectation – as the scribes have cultivated and defined it – has proven a hindrance rather than a help to their spiritual expectancy. Elijah has indeed come, but not in a form they were looking or hoping for. The scribes’ expectations emerged from an experience of time in which the past repeated itself in new configurations, but predictable ones. God’s future would vindicate the historic longings of his people in a way that corresponded to the patterns of the past.
I have to wonder precisely what the scribes were expecting as they waited for the return of Elijah. Perhaps something more cataclysmic, like the “fire from heaven” that was Elijah’s flashy, personal signature? How and where were they looking? Did they notice even the slightest family resemblance between the Prophet who was fed by ravens and the man in the nearby wilderness eating locusts and wild honey? Did they notice even a vague similarity between the man who called down fire in judgment upon the priests of Baal and the man just beyond the Jordan, whose fiery words so inflamed the conscience of the common folk to repentance and messianic expectancy? As far as outer packaging goes, those boxes were wrapped in virtually identical wrapping paper. But then I remember when, as a child, I was invited to open one Christmas present early, as a way to whet my appetite for what was to come. Given the choice between a wrapped package that felt like the socks I genuinely needed and the one that felt (or sounded) like the lego set I wanted, the socks remained unopened.
Having glimpsed or touched or tasted some gift of the Spirit’s grace in a moment of expectancy, our need to translate the experience can quickly become a plan for how we can reproduce the experience. We come to expect from God the experience we have decided would be best for us, or most interesting for us, or most meaningful for us, like those incredibly detailed and specific wish lists we may have asked our parents to give to Santa Claus when we were children. Ideally, by the second or third time we have the experience, we have confidence that God will learn how to customize the experience according to our specifications. The lighting will be perfect, the sunset will be just the right shade of red, and there will be no mosquitos or rain or chronic back pain or painful childhood memories to interrupt it this time. Elijah will come in the fiery chariot we have longed for, and whisk us into the arms of Jesus…
In the remaining days of Advent, we have the precious opportunity to cultivate a prayerful and open expectancy while noticing and letting go of unhelpful or self-centered expectations. The noble company of prophets stands ready to help us. They stand ready to give us the gifts that God knows we need, rather than the gifts we have decided we want, in order to receive the gift of a true Messiah.
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