Gospel lection, Advent 1, Year B: Mark 13.24-37
I admit it. When I realized that Mark 13.24-37 was the gospel lection for the first Sunday of Advent this year, I cringed. Sometimes called the “little apocalypse,” this passage contains Jesus’ description of the end of the age. “But in those days,” he says, “after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Jesus goes on to talk about how, on a day and hour that no one knows, the Son of Man will come in the clouds with power and glory, and he exhorts his followers to “keep awake.”
In describing the end of the age, Jesus draws on imagery that we find embedded in the Hebrew scriptures, such as the book of Joel:
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2.10)
It’s the same kind of imagery that fuels John’s vivid, visionary account in the book of Revelation, as in this passage:
…I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. (Rev. 6.12)
In this text that launches us into Advent, Jesus employs a complex and sobering visual lexicon that’s rich with ancient layers of symbolism and meaning. In doing so, he offers his hearers a vision that disrupts their everyday world. Jesus calls upon them to attend to the signs around them, to look beneath the surface of their patterns of relationships and rhythms of life. He urges them to discern for themselves the activity of God.
We should not wonder that immediately following Jesus’ discourse, Mark tells of the plot to kill him.
I have been wishing for an easier start to the season, for words that would welcome us into Advent with a more graceful sense of hospitality. This lection doesn’t so much beckon us across the threshold as it throws open a door, tosses a cup of cold water in our face to wake us, and shoves us through.
But perhaps, instead of a cozy welcome into the season, this is precisely what we need as we enter Advent: a heaping serving of mystery, a vivid reminder that we can’t know everything, can’t see everything, can’t predict everything that will happen in the days to come. With its depiction of sun and moon going dark and stars falling from heaven, this passage challenges us to give up our usual sources of illumination, to let go of our habitual ways of knowing, to question our typical ways of seeing, so that we may receive the God who comes to us in the dark.
Mystery is rarely comfortable. We want to understand what it is we’re doing here, to see more clearly how God is at work, to know how the future will unfold. This gospel passage confounds us, reminds us that God works in the darkness as well as in the daylight. In the book of Isaiah, God says through the prophet,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name. (Is. 45.3)
Here at The Advent Door, I’ll be exploring some of those secret places—the texts, images, symbols, and stories that this sacred season offers to us, approaching them as doorways into the mystery of the God who comes to dwell among us. In the spirit of having some space to breathe during this season, I’ll be posting several times a week rather than every day, as I did last year. I would love to have your company on the path.
If you’re new to The Advent Door, welcome! It might help to know that the reflections here emerge from a practice called lectio divina, a Greek term that means sacred reading. An ancient way of praying with sacred texts, lectio invites us to find the connections—the thin places, to borrow a term from the Celtic tradition—between the landscape of the scriptures and the landscape of our own lives, and to meet God there.
The images that accompany these reflections are painted paper collages. They’re not meant merely to illustrate the reflections; rather, they are part of my lectio process. They are a way that I pray. Creating artwork gives me a doorway into these Advent texts. These images, too, become texts of their own, creating a visual vocabulary that helps me navigate and articulate what I’m finding in the landscape of this season. Though the collages tend toward the abstract, they draw much inspiration from medieval artwork, particularly as found in illuminated manuscripts such as the jewel-like Books of Hours, Psalters, and the like. The luminous images contained in those medieval manuscripts did more than elaborate the texts they accompanied; rather, the images had their own story to tell. They offered doorways into the mysteries that words alone could not contain.
And so may it be here. May the words and images that emerge in this season offer entryways into the story of the One who came in the midst of darkness to be with us. As we cross the threshold into Advent, what do you need to carry with you? What do you need to let go of, so that you can receive what lies ahead?
Welcome to Advent! Blessings on your way.