December 9th, 2012
Second Sunday of Advent
Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 3:1-11; Luke 3:1-6
Barb and I really like Americanos with cream—we usually have one or two a day—but we’ve decided to give them up for Advent.
Oh the sharpness of the espresso against the smoothness of the cream!
But Advent like Lent is supposed to have its penitential aspect, too, and giving up Americanos is easy enough to do, and it saves us quite a bit of money over the course of the month. It’s a small way of making straight the paths for the Lord. Of preparing for the future that the scriptures promise.
Advent is all about waiting, it’s all about the future, and I worry about the future, the way I think a lot of us do. I fear it. I fear all the challenges of growing older and I fear all the challenges my children will face and in general I fear all the bad things that might happen.
But the readings today are calling us to be “confident,” to use Paul’s word from Philippians, and that’s a challenge, too, a discipline. To be joyous. To take off “the mantle of mourning and misery,” as Baruch says, and put on “the splendor of glory from God forever,” even though we know we will have to suffer, as Mary suffers in her life as the mother of Jesus, seeing what she sees, pierced as she is by the sword. But the child is born, and the child is beautiful and good, and in the end he rises from the dead and leads us all to eternal life so that not even death should frighten us anymore.
This is the pattern our thinking should take. Whenever we feel this anxiety we so often feel, whenever we feel this fear, we should say to ourselves, no, no: whatever happens, Emmanuel, God with us.
And in the meantime life without Americanos isn’t really so bad. I’m saving a few minutes each day, and I’m not wasting energy with anticipation, and I’m taking just a little more pleasure in the things that remain. The taste of an apple. A word from a friend.
Life is good. If what I worry about is losing things, if what I worry about is loss, maybe I should just relax. Maybe it’s all going to be OK.
Less is really more.
“This is my prayer,” Paul says: “that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value.” The root of the word “discern” means to “cut away,” and I think that’s the key. We can’t see what’s important until we clear away the clutter. We can’t hear the still, small voice until we turn off the noise. We prepare the way by straightening things out—making them simpler, plainer, less encumbered.
Even as the world is telling us to go in the opposite direction. To pile up the presents. To bury ourselves in things.
It’s not an accident that John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness. He has to. It’s only in the wilderness, in the desert places, far from all the pretensions and abstractions, that he can make contact with the real, and this is where he wants us to be, too. Out in the open. Out where life is simple and spare.
You know how when you’re talking to somebody and they’re looking over your shoulder at someone else? That’s what it’s like when we’re preoccupied with the future. We can’t see the people right in front of us. There are all these tags still left on the giving tree, all those presents that people need, and I bet most of us didn’t even notice them, we’re so busy planning the perfect Christmas. We still need two more people to serve at the women’s homeless shelter—we don’t have enough. How many of us even realized there was this gap, this need?
We have to cut away what’s not important so we can see what is, again and again. Paul prays that we increase in “every kind of perception,” and that’s another way of putting it. We need to learn to see in a new way. We need to learn to recognize what is truly “of value.”
“Repent,” John the Baptist cries. Metanoia. Which is to say: change your mind.
I guess there’s a contradiction here, and it’s at the heart of everything. Advent is about the future, it’s telling us that there’s something better to come, which is also to acknowledge that there’s something missing in our lives right now, something not quite enough, and that’s true, of course. We are always longing for something else, longing for God.
But on the other hand Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow, that we should live in the moment, the way the birds do and the lilies of the field. In the Eucharistic prayer we pray to be “free of all anxiety,” as Paul does, too, later in Philippians. “Have no anxiety at all,” he says, and what’s anxiety about if not the future and an obsessing about the future?
But maybe these two ideas come together, maybe they’re not a really contradiction after all, because in the very act of preparing we often become aware that God is already all around us. This isn’t the first Christmas that’s ever happened. It’s happened 2011 times already, and it’s always happening. The liturgical calendar only separates out what is always going on.
Christ is always being born and Christ is always being crucified and Christ is always rising.
Eternal life isn’t just in the future--though it’s there, too, and that should give us courage and that should give us hope—but it’s also here, in the present. When we get to heaven we will recognize it. We will have already been there, for whole minutes at a time.
Or is it this? Is this the idea?
That we need to be present in the moment in order to be present to our own emptiness and longing and desire?
Not to run away from our loneliness. Not to try to hide from what we lack. The reason to focus on the present is not just because it’s fulfilling in its way, though it is, but because finally it’s not and never can be. Nothing we can ever eat and nothing we can ever drink can take away our real hunger and our real thirst, and we have to sit with that and be with that and acknowledge that or we will never be free.
The only cup that can fill us is the cup of his blood. The only cup that can fill us is the cup of the new and everlasting covenant.
All that we long for and all that we need is the child who was born in that manger long ago. Is that little baby. All that we long for and all that we need is the child who will be born and who is always being born, in every atom and in every cell, the alpha and the omega, now and forever.