Reading from the Gospels, Advent 1, Year A: Matthew 24.36-44
Those who have been journeying with me for a while know that this has been my most intense year ever. “Wild and wondrous” is the way I have often described this year that has included getting married, moving, completing and launching a new book, and some major trips for work. The year has been so full that it’s only been just recently that my husband and I, who got married in April, have been home long enough and without major deadlines looming that we have begun to do things like buy furniture and unpack the rest of our boxes.
It has been a year of upheaval: leaving the cozy apartment that I had lived in for a dozen years, moving out of the single life I had always known, settling into a new home, learning to navigate the rhythms of this community of two that Gary and I are making. The year has, at times, been unsettling as it has brought deep and welcome changes but also a schedule that has sometimes made it challenging to absorb and live into those changes. And the year has held, too, the sorts of disruptions and upheavals that always lie beyond our control. Gary and I have just returned from the funeral of one of my aunts. The rituals and gatherings that followed her death, with their bittersweet mix of sorrow and celebration, offered a powerful reminder of how this life that we share is so unpredictable and fragile, yet so persistently resilient.
And it is in the midst of all this that Advent begins. Each time that I enter this season, I carry fond desires and imaginings about how this will be the year that I find time to cultivate a space of calm as we travel toward Christmas; perhaps this will be the year that I won’t sit in the worship service on Christmas Eve night and think, Now I’m ready for Advent to begin.
Yet, especially in this wild and wondrous year, I suspect that Advent will unfold in much the same way that it has previously: it will be intense (that word, again) and pass more quickly than I would like, leaving me wishing, on Christmas Eve, that I had somehow managed to find a more contemplative pace. I find myself thinking, though, that perhaps this wish points toward the deeper invitation of Advent. Perhaps the preparation and expectation to which Advent calls us are not to be found solely in the spaces we set aside during this season. Although it’s important to keep working at finding those contemplative openings in these days, I suspect that Advent is what happens in the midst of all this. We find the heart of the season, the invitation of these weeks, amid the life that is unfolding around us, with its wildness and wonders and upheavals and intensities.
We see this in the lectionary, where the season of Advent begins on what seems a profoundly unsettling note. The gospel lection for the first Sunday of Advent is always a passage that, whether taken from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, is known as “the little apocalypse.” Each year the first gospel lection of Advent challenges us to remember that this season is a time not only of remembering the Christ who has already come to us but who, the gospels tell us, will come again, with attendant signs and wonders. Jesus calls his hearers—calls us—in these passages to keep awake, to stay alert, to be ready, for we do not know at what hour he will come.
As with the other little apocalypses, Matthew’s version disturbs and challenges us with its images of the loss and lack of security that come with Christ’s return: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left,” Jesus says in this gospel. “Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Matthew’s version is distinctive and dramatic for the way that Jesus introduces the language of thievery to describe how he will come: “But understand this,” Jesus says as he exhorts his listeners to keep awake; “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”
It can be tempting to recoil from the imagery that this opening lection gives us: Christ as burglar, coworkers and companions left bereft, the anxiety of not knowing when or how the Word who became flesh for us will come again. Yet the season of Advent challenges us to resist recoiling and instead to press into the insecurity and unsettledness of this passage—and of our lives. Advent beckons us beyond the certainties that may not serve us—those sureties we have relied on that may have no substance to them after all. Advent is a season to look at what we have fashioned our lives around—beliefs, habits, convictions, prejudices—and to see whether these leave any room for the Christ who is so fond of slipping into our lives in guises we may not readily recognize.
In her book The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming—a beautiful reflection on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany—Wendy M. Wright relates words given to her by a Trappist retreat master, who said, “To be a Christian does not mean knowing all the answers; to be a Christian means being willing to live in the part of the self where the question is born.” With this opening lection, Advent reminds us of this in a fashion that may seem painfully direct but can also be tremendously freeing: it tells us that we do not know everything, cannot know everything, are not responsible for knowing everything. It tells us that, ultimately, we live in mystery.
But it also tells us this: if we stay awake; if we open our eyes in the midst of our life, with all of its wildness and wonders, then we will see: something is coming. Drawing closer. Stealing home.
How will you stay awake in this season? What do you long for the weeks ahead to look like? How might you find God’s response to those longings in the rhythm of your life, in the midst of your days?
Whatever the pace of your life in this season, may wonders attend you.