The Necessity for Watchfulness
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: 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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
You will notice that the liturgical colours in our church have changed since last Sunday. They are the colour blue which marks, once again, the beginning of the church’s year. You may be aware that, in our Anglican tradition, the colour blue is in honour of the Virgin Mary. And, in this season of Advent, Mary, the mother of Jesus is central to our thoughts as we prepare to celebrate her giving birth to Jesus.
As well, church historians will tell you that, originally, the early church used the colour violet during Advent, as well as Lent, but in the middle ages, when the colour violet became too expensive, the colour blue was substituted. That seems to be a more practical reason for our use of blue. But I like the notion that it symbolizes Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Advent is a kind of neutral season of transition. We have other seasons of the church’s year that have more definition to them. Christmas stands out as a time of new life and exuberance. Epiphany shines a powerful light on the call to the Gentiles, as we celebrate the Magi bringing their gifts to Jesus. Lent is a time of sack cloth and ashes and our preparation for a renewed relationship with each other and with God. Easter is splendid rebirth. Pentecost is the fiery time of the Spirit.
But Advent, even as a preparation for Christmas, seems to limp a little. It is a rest stop, if you will, a shutting-down time from the past before we begin again. Hence, all those end-of-the-world images in Advent’s readings. Destruction before rebuilding. Devastation before renewal. Something is ending. Something is about to be born. But, first, death. And, as the gospel reading today advises us – we need always to be vigilant, to be watchful.
Some of us may remember the little kid’s ditty we used to chant, “Ring around the rosy. A pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, all fall down!” As you know, there is a dark origin to that tune. The ‘ring around the rosy’ refers to the Black Death of the fourteenth century in Europe. The sign of the dreaded disease was a black ring rash around a red spot. Hence, “ring around the rosy.” “Pocket full of posies” refers to the people’s use of carrying flowers with them, in the days before bottled perfumes, to try to cover over the terrible stench of decaying bodies and death. Finally, “ashes, ashes, all fall down” refers to the fact that the Black Death felled one-quarter of the population of Europe. Every family had a death. It was a terrible, terrible time. Because it was so horrible, people tried to cover it over, live with it, by transferring something deadly into a little rhyme and game. They sang “Ring around the Rosy” to help cover up the despair they had to live with.
But, Advent is just the opposite of this rhyme’s intent. It covers up nothing. On the contrary, Advent insistently remembers and urges us to be ever watchful. It remembers things that should die, should be destroyed in order that something new will arise. That is why this season will play on the twin themes of ‘deciding’ and ‘waiting’.
First, let us consider ‘Deciding’. Advent, we said, deals with endings – the stars falling, the moon refusing to give light, the sun dimmed, a massive flood that will sweep everyone and everything away, a thief in the night entering your house – and the anticipation of something new arising from all this destruction, and then it demands that we come to certain decisions.
Of all the decisions it asks us to make for a new time is the decision to make inner space. The past was too cluttered and needed to be torn down. We all need that. We need space. We need to pause and open our minds and hearts to make room for transition to new birth.
How many of you have read the writings of Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer? Nouwen spent a couple of years in Peru among the poor. And, he was quite taken with their simplicity and the utter happiness of their lives, even though they were living in abject poverty. He could not help but feel the contrary when he returned to North America, with all its wealth. He wrote in his diary, “What strikes me about being back in the United States is the full force of restlessness and the loneliness and the tension that holds so many people. The conversations I had today,” he writes, “were about spiritual survival. Many of my friends feel overwhelmed by the many demands made on them. Few feel the inner peace and joy they so much desire.”
And most of us probably can answer, “Amen to that.”
There is a contemporary ring to that statement, isn’t there, as we hear and read about the fall-out in the recent American Presidential election.
Nouwen contrasts this feeling of restlessness, loneliness and tension he experienced in the United states to the happiness he found in Peru. He writes in his diary of his longing for American society “To celebrate life together, to be together in community, to simply enjoy the beauty of creation, the love of people and the goodness of God. These seem such far-away ideals. There seems to be a mountain of obstacles preventing people from being where their heart wants them to be. So painful to watch and experience.” Nouwen continues, “The astonishing thing is that the battle for survival has become so normal that few people believe that there can be a difference. Oh, how important is discipline, community, prayer, silence, caring presence, simple listening, adoration, and deep, lasting, faithful friendship. We all want it so much, and still the powers suggesting that it is all fantasy are enormous. “But,” Nouwen resolves, “we have to replace the battle for power with the battle to create space for the spirit.”
If Advent’s first demand is about deciding, then it suggests what to decide. It suggests that we need to make more space in the new church year for one another, for cultivating friendships …. for family ….for God.
Advent’s second demand is that we must wait. Wait till the destruction is over and the debris is settled; wait patiently for something else to be born. Give it time. Waiting is not our strong suit, especially since we have been culturally honed to instant responses.
I can remember in my childhood, being fascinated by butterflies. I lived near a large estate in Regina, which was, at one time, the residence of the Lieutenant- Governor of Saskatchewan, we had free access to open fields and flowering bushes and trees which teemed with gorgeous butterflies in the Spring and Summer. I remember trying to catch them in my bare hands, so I could examine their beauty them more closely. But, as much as I tried – as much as I hid and quickly jumped up to capture one – I always missed and it flew away, laughing at my awkwardness, I am sure. My aunt Grace, a very wise person, one day said, “You know Gary, you will waste a lot of energy and time running after these beautiful creatures. So, I suggest that you just remain still, sit down if you like, and just quietly wait for them to alight on you. Fortunately, I took her advice and I did just that. And, many times, over the course of that Spring, I was blessed with a close experience with one of God’s wonderful creations. I just needed to make time and space.
Waiting, as I said, is not our strong point. Most people equate waiting with waste, a waste of time. Some people are quite impatient, waiting for a family or health situation to change for the better. In a land where time is money, we do not want to wait. So, we build supersonic jet aircraft, drink instant coffee, email and text our messages, drive with our cellular phones plugged into our ear, drop squares of sod for instant lawns and eat fast foods at fast food places. If life asks us to wait, we get nervous – and guilty. We should be doing something.
But Advent asks us to wait. In fact, Advent is the season of waiting. One woman, with good insight, likens Advent to pregnancy. She writes, “Waiting is an impractical time in our thoughts, good for nothing, but mysteriously necessary to all that is coming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation. Not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not reconciliation, a work of art, a serious illness, and never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the process of becoming, and they are the symbolic states of being that belong in a life of value necessary for transformation.”
That is why Advent’s chief figure is Mary. Mary had to decide and she gave her answer, “Let it be done to me, according to your word.” Mary had to wait. Patiently, she had to create space for the child in her womb, in her life. She had to wait nine months to look into the face of her Saviour and ours. She had to let it happen.
For this faith-community of St. John’s, then, Advent is a time for to decide to engage with one another and to be reconciled with one another, acknowledging that the past year has been an active one, a time of loss – the loss of a much loved priest and Rector. It was a time of change, a productive one, with much that is positive about it. But, you are now in a new time of transformation. Advent is also a time for a faith-community to wait. To patiently wait for something new to be born in you. To let your engaging one another, your reconciliation with one another have time to work and to bear fruit.
This season, then, is strongly suggestive. It is a time to be watchful; a time to make space to let the butterfly find you, rather than chasing after it. To decide. What needs to grow? Family unity? Friendships? Inner peace? Caring for yourself? Transformation to a revitalized faith-community? Rushing is the enemy of the spirit as it is of relationships. Like Mary, we need to sit quietly in prayer and let the Sprit do what she will.-The Reverend Gary Hamblin
– Sources: Fred B. Craddock et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year; William Bausch, A World of Stories; Gracias!: A Latin American Journal by Henri J.M. Nouwen.