The season of Advent begins tomorrow, marking the beginning of the Christian calendar. This shorter liturgical season commences four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time of preparation as the Church readies to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and ruminate upon the mystery of Incarnation — “God-with-us”, in the flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Advent has a two-fold focus: anticipation and commemoration. The first half of the season is anticipatory — looking forward to the at-any-moment “moment” when the promise of Christ’s return is fulfilled. This notion that “Christ will come again”, while part of our liturgical verbiage and ecclesiastical heritage, isn’t something we Episcopalians spend very much time thinking (or talking!) about. We’re nervous about being perceived as superstitious or non-rational, so we’ve tended to do our best to ignore the Tradition’s insistence that the First Advent of God-in-the-Flesh foreshadows a Second Advent at the end of time as we know it.
We’ve been more than willing to cede such eschatological discussions to other parts of the Church. This has been to our detriment. I would argue our reticence to engage such a conversation has actually eviscerated our understanding of Christian ethics (flattening our ethical discussions to squishy forms of nebulous do-goodism). This has resulted in much of our involvement in social justice looking more like partisan politics than an engagement in the overt proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God.
When the First Sunday of Advent happens to fall on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the difficulty of keeping our competing calendars (ecclesial and cultural) coordinated is writ large. In the aftermath of familial celebrations, feasting and perhaps a bit of Black Friday shopping, we are more ready to take a nap than to keep awake. More worried about the next day at work than “the last day” of all time. More ready to lounge around in pajamas than to put on “the armor of light”. More ready to think about the coming (way back then) of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” in the manger than to consider the (very unlikely, we’re certain) advent of Jesus, the Son of God, coming again “in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.” More worried about how we’ll get through this life than how we’ll rise “to the life immortal”.
After twenty-plus centuries, the waiting game is getting old. Most North American Mainline Christians have moved on. If there’s something to this far-fetched notion of a Second Advent, we’ll let God work out the details. We’ve got life to live and we can live it with very little thought about such things. We can’t simply sit around on a mountain somewhere straining our eyes up into the sky hoping to catch a glimpse. Besides, we don’t do ridiculous stuff like that. We have too much fun satirizing those who do!
In the Gospel of Luke (19:12-26), Jesus tells the “Parable of the Pounds” (recorded in the Gospel of Matthew as the “Parable of the Talents”). While the details of each version are different, both parables are eschatological in scope; the servants are given resources to use in their master’s absence, but don’t know exactly when their time for making use of those resources will be “up”. They know the master will return. They simply don’t know when. In Luke’s version, though, the master gives a word of instruction after he has distributed the money to the servants:
“Do business with these until I come back.” (Luke 19:13, New Revised Standard Version)
“Operate with this until I return.” (Luke 19:13, The Message)
“Occupy till I come.” (Luke 19:13, King James Version)
The first two weeks of Advent provide opportunity for the Church to reflect on the year past with an eye trained toward God’s unfinished future. How have we been doing in our business of proclaiming Good News? How are we operating in service of the Kingdom that is both present and is to come? How are we occupying ourselves?
Occupation is an act of taking up space. Advent challenges the Church to take up space in the world — to spread out and proclaim the Good News; to refuse to be confined to a Sunday-morning-only expression of personal piety; to resist being silenced in the name of propriety. Occupation is a vocational act. Advent stresses that the Church’s vocation is to stand with those whom the rest of the world prefers to stomp on. Part of the way we operate as the Church is to give voice to those who don’t have one — to work strenuously for justice and peace as an outward and visible sign of our belief that salvation (God’s wholeness) is for the whole person (and the whole world!) — and that this salvation infiltrates and redeems every single aspect of life. Our vocation is the hope-filled notion that working against all odds for “the least of these” is precisely how we’re supposed to be the Church in a culture hell-bent on telling us that certain situations or groups of people are hopeless. Occupation is a political act. Advent reminds us of the Church as polis (a people) that lives its common life in a way which witnesses to the abundant life promised by Jesus. Such a common life reorients us (and anyone who cares to notice us) to an understanding that abundance is more than the balance in one’s checking account, the acquisition of the latest electronic gadget or wearing the shiniest gemstones around one’s neck. In a culture which stresses “more” — more power, more control, more money, more, more, more — the Church is the polis which gives witness to the idea of neighborly abundance in which God provides enough…for everyone.
How well are we occupying ourselves? Most congregations are very busy this time of year, but are we occupied with things that distract us from our occupation? The first two weeks of Advent could well be a corrective to our tendency to sentimentalize and privatize the Gospel. God is at work in the world. Christ will come again. Occupy till he comes.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer, page 211).