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Watch Thou and Pray: The First Sunday of Advent

Sunday, November 29, 2020:
Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

You might be familiar with the poet Christina Rossetti. She wrote the words to the hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I’ve gathered in recent years that people seem to like that one. It’s quite beautiful when you start it after a noticeable silence. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a bit dark; it’s haunting. It’s, as the title implies, bleak. Maybe a hymn for us to turn to in Christmas 2020. (Though I’m not yet sure if we’ll be allowed to sing it, in person, as a group.)

I came across another of her poems the other day, in which she writes:

Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty, and youth, sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.

The world passing away, sapped day by day. This brings to mind the trees shedding their leaves. Everything going dormant, bears retreating to their dens. We enter a time of waiting, of withdrawal. Waiting for the safer, more pleasant time when the leaves begin to bud again.

It’s not hard to make a connection between the slow-down and waiting of wintertime and all of the other waiting that we’ve been doing for much of 2020. We’re all looking for a better day. Waiting for a better day. It seems that there are two popular styles of waiting. One is a conservative approach. Looking for some stability by holding to the past. Hoping that in circular fashion we get back to where we once were. A second style of waiting is more interested in getting to the future, and doing so quickly. In its more extreme forms, it’s willing to steamroll the people that get in the way of realizing this future, sacrificing them to ‘the cause.’

The collect today incorporates both backward and forward-looking orientations: “Jesus Christ came to us in great humility” and we look forward to “the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.” But it does more than this. It’s a prayer for us in the here-and-now: “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life…”

It’s this grounding in the present moment that protects our Christian faith from the unhealthy lures of sentimentalism and utopianism. Today’s readings point to this. St. Paul writes “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus exhorts: “see… beware… keep alert… keep awake.” All of these being practices of the present. These passages might help to reassure us that our experience of waiting isn’t a failure, or an intermission, or an absence of real life. Though that might be how many of us are feeling these days: we’re waiting for this to pass so that real life can begin again. But like the slaves in the short parable Jesus offers, we’re called to be watchful, and ready at all times. The present moment matters. Like the parable of the sheep and the goats reminded us last week, while we’re looking and waiting for Jesus the judge to come and set things right, we might miss the appearances of Jesus that come to us in the sick person, the hungry, the incarcerated.

So as Isaiah describes in an otherwise dark passage, “we are the clay and [God] is the potter.” Rather than look for meaning exclusively in a past that is gone or in an idealistic future, we’re called to be people of hope, people with eyes wide open, people that are being formed by God, right now. If you can’t venture far outside your home, you can go deeper inside your soul. Let hope be an active preparation for God’s future that begins with you.

So in these weeks leading up to Christmas I encourage you to be open to some practice that you can incorporate into your day or week that co-operates with the shaping and molding that God wants to do, and is doing, in you. Our weekly parish email lists a number of options, and our Christian tradition offers two centuries worth of practices and virtues to develop. Cultivate a spirit of readiness, of watchfulness. What will almost certainly be a stripped-down celebration of Christmas this year, with some of the frivolity and commercialism displaced, may in fact lead to a more powerful experience, if we have hearts and minds to recognize the gift.

And so I return to that poem from Christina Rossetti:

At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay;
Watch thou and pray.

O LORD, you are our Father, the Potter; we are the clay.
Watch thou and pray.
Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter