Advent has always been a really hard season for me. I've never really understood what we are doing in this season of waiting. Someone once told me that Advent is a season of waiting for the first Christmas. As if we are supposed to spend four weeks pretending it is 35 BC and we have no idea when the Messiah is going to be born. This seems a bit disingenuous to me in the midst of all the Christmas decorations that arrived before Halloween, the carols that have been playing for a couple of weeks, and the fact that it is 2008 and we know that Jesus was born, and we will celebrate that great fact on December the 25th. Then it must be that we are waiting for the second coming. Maybe we are supposed to look into some sort of divine crystal ball and for the return of Jesus that might happen this afternoon or might not happen for tens of thousands of years. This too seems a bit odd; that we'd be called to spend four weeks pondering something about which Jesus himself said, "No one knows..." If the words from Jesus are true then we are called to do just the opposite, to not spend our time scanning the pages of Scripture to decode the future in terms of timetables, dates, and signs focused on some far off future time. (1)
Advent has always been a really hard season for me, until this year. This year, for whatever reason, I'm realizing that Advent serves as both a beginning and an end, to remind us of both the past and the future, but most importantly, Advent is about right now. This is most true today, the First Sunday of Advent. This gospel lesson serves as an end to the parables of judgment we have heard over that past few weeks as well as the opening scene in the great story of salvation history that we will once again hear over the next fifty-two Sundays. In order to understand the both/and of history and future we must remember the many times, prior to Jesus, when God called his people back into relationship as well as the way in which his goals will finally be realized in the return of the Messiah with the unveiling of the new heaven and the new earth. Both the past and the future matter in the here and now because Jesus wasn't just talking abstractly to a future generation and he wasn't just talking abstractly to his own generation either. He was talking across years, beyond time, so that we too might take seriously his commandment to "keep awake."
This delicate balance of history, present, and future is no more visible than on this the First Sunday of Advent. On the 10th of November 1942 Sir Winston Churchill spoke following an Allied victory in the Second Battle of El Alamenin, North Africa. As he reflected five days after what history would show as a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II, Churchill was moved to say, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."(3) Advent One is, perhaps, our yearly reminder that the end of the beginning has come. Through Jesus' incarnation, his life, his death, his resurrection, and ascension the Kingdom of God broke into history in a new way. Followers of the Way are invited daily to become citizens of that Kingdom. It is about our past, our present, and our future.
The world may not have literally come to an end during the lifetime of Jesus' disciples, but the world did, in a very real sense, begin anew within just a few short days of Jesus' speaking these words. Jesus told his disciples to be on watch at evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn for the world to change, and in less than a week it would. Two days later, at about midnight, Judas approached his Rabbi, kissed him on the cheek, and betrayed him into the hands of those who would kill him. At cockcrow that night, Peter realized that even he, the most zealous of Jesus' disciples was not immune to the growing pressure; having denied his association three times. The following evening, as Jesus breathed his last the curtain of the temple, the veil over the holy of holies, would be torn in two as the Centurion was compelled to say, "truly this was the son of God. Finally, at dawn on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome would find the tomb empty and became the first witnesses of the resurrection. For each of them, Jesus' message of waiting wasn't about an even way off in the future, but their apocalypse, their owning lifting of the veil, their own encounter with the living God was about to happen.
For us who live in the meantime, Jesus calls us to "keep awake" because the Kingdom of God is already here even as we wait for its full unveiling. It is the end of the beginning. Every moment of every day is lived in the presence of the risen Christ while we wait for his "coming on clouds with great power and glory." We stand watch in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and at dawn for THE APOCALYPSE all the while watching for our own little apocalypses, our own lifting of the veil, our own encounters with the living God.
"Don't take this lightly," Jesus said, "I'm not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too. These things will happen." (2) The final setting to rights of history is one the horizon, it could come at anytime. In the meantime, we must be awake in order to see the times when God's dream for us is made clear. The Son of God came to "make straight every crooked way, to right every wrong, to upend every injustice, and to reconcile all things to himself" and he is doing it one apocalypse at a time.
Advent has always been a really hard season for me. I've never really understood what we are doing in this season of waiting. Now I know, I've had one of the eye opening experiences that God has in store for me. I now know that yes, we wait for Christmas. And yes, we wait for Christ's second coming. But moreso, we watch and wait for God to bless us with our own experiences of the risen Christ as he opens our eyes to the vast dream of God. Advent is about the past. It is about the future. Most importantly it is about right now. So, my brothers and sisters, keep awake!