Open our hearts, 1 Advent (A) – 2007

December 2, 2007

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

“Lo, He comes with clouds, descending,” are the words of a favorite Advent hymn. “Clouds descending” may have a majestic tone or sound like a terrible storm about to strike. Today, the first day of the Christian year, begins with a contrast: the Light of the Nations to which all shall come, the majestic mountain of the Lord, the city of peace, where there shall be no more war; and then in the gospel we hear the warnings of what the day will be like, the Day of the Lord: a day of judgment, sudden and decisive, and without warning.

Meanwhile, we scrabble on with life lived in the midst of death. Cities are threatened with crime, and our dwellings become more and more fortresses against possible attack. Military build-up is in the wind, needed, we are told, to protect us from terrorists. Violent video games fly off the shelves as Christmas gifts. Rural areas are dumping grounds for prisoners and cheap immigrant labor, and in the words of the poet, W. B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

In our spiritual lives, we are tossed from certainty to doubt, from victory to despair. One day it’s God’s world, and the next we wonder, Is anyone in charge?

Advent is not a time to prepare for Christmas. It is a time to open our hearts more to Christ. Advent is a breaking in, a strong reminder that God has a plan that is unfolding, even if we don’t see it. All these things taking place, the news, bad and good – global warming, natural disasters, terrorism, oil at $100 per barrel, the possible cure for disease through stem-cell research – these things are merely side acts on the stage. The real event is taking place in a hidden, yet powerful way. Lives are changed every day because of Christ, people are healed from sin and death, eyes are opened to new realities, and we seldom hear about them because we’re too distracted by the other stuff.

So, this is the time to put away your iPod for a day. This is a time to turn off CNN, Fox News or whatever your source is. This is a time to find some solitude. In fact, insist on it. This is a season to draw apart for a little while, to read scripture, to take ten minutes and breath slowly, letting the promise of God fill your lungs with fresh air. This is a time for taking stock of what really matters and letting go of some things that don’t.

An elderly woman lived in a drab apartment. She used to be visited occasionally by a deacon from her church. The apartment was in a cold concrete block of flats, and the views out of the window were of a scrap yard. They would always sit and drink tea when the deacon came. On one visit the deacon said, “Maybe you need some green plants to make things a little less stark.” “No,” said the old woman. “I look out in the junkyard and think about all the parts of my life that I let go of a long time ago. Then I think about what I have left, and it’s all good!” The deacon left thinking about her own cozy home and how hard she worked to make it a haven from the world. Maybe she didn’t need to try so hard. If junk can become grace for us, a reminder of things left behind, perhaps we all ought to spend some time in Advent looking at a junkyard!

Families are always under stress at Christmas. Advent offers some alternatives: an Advent wreath on the table, and its increasing shine as a new candle is lit each week; an Advent calendar to mark the days of waiting; a brief passage from scripture with the evening meal. These are anti-stress times when people’s souls get restored among those they love. Those who live alone can sit in front of a lighted candle and remember loved ones and friends who have surrounded them in the candlelight. Most of all, we can recall a God who loves us so much that we are offered a time to prepare, a time to wait, a time to remember that underneath all that seems to be crumbling is a firm foundation, and the One who is to come.

May this Advent be a blessed time for us and for all whom we love.

 

— The Rev. Ben E. Helmer is part of a ministry team at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.

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