Advent: Begin at the End (Mother Beth)
For most of the world’s Christians, today is New Years’ Day. Happy New Year! We begin a fresh liturgical year this morning. If the liturgical year is unfamiliar to you, you actually pass a diagram of it every time you walk in that back door, so stop and look -- and you can pick up a free calendar with its dates and times in the Great Hall to take home today. Living by that calendar rather than by the secular American calendar is one of our important Christian tools.
The liturgical year is our way of letting the Spirit teach us that that time itself belongs to God, and that every day and hour is given its real meaning by the work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. The liturgical year is our way of letting the Spirit demonstrate that no matter how many times we approach Jesus together in Scripture and Sacrament, there is always something new to find. The meaning of who Jesus is and what he has done is inexhaustible, so we live it out in our calendar year after year, even though most Americans barely know our calendar exists.
The diagram of if you pass on the way in shows the liturgical year a circle, which is a common image, but one scholar has suggested a better image may be a spiral, ascending as it moves. Because every time we come back to the readings for today, the collect for today, there has been change in us, change in our world, and we discover that God is competent to address it. We learn by experience that he has ever new guidance and insights and challenges for us, as we spiral through the liturgical year and re-encounter the same readings and prayers over and over. So if you are choosing to live as a disciple of Jesus, one thing that will help you is to pick up this tool of the liturgical calendar and begin using it. Your clergy can recommend more resources.
Now you might have noticed in our readings today that on this day of new beginnings, we begin at the end. All three readings do this, but let’s look right now at the Gospel from Luke. Luke is our Sunday Gospel for the next 12 months, and we’ll be focusing on it this whole liturgical year, until Advent 2022. In Luke today, Jesus talks about the passing of the present order of things and the hope of the future, when he is revealed in his fulness and the universe finally, fully works God’s way. And again, we see a similarity to that difference of what calendar you follow: there is a difference between us who belong to Jesus, and those who belong to something else.
Jesus explains, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Do you see those two reactions? Some people are filled with fear and foreboding when God gets his way, but how do disciples react? We stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.
If we are invested in the present order of things – and I think even we who belong to Jesus fall into that investment at least some of the time – we are likely to want to stay inside that order and all the things we’ve invested in. Now if you are in an oppressed group that’s getting a raw deal systemically, it may immediately hit you as good news that the present order is not permanent. Many Christians live under that kind of oppression. But if the present order is basically working OK for you, you are likely to want to keep it going.
But the problem there is that the more we limit our vision to the present order of things, and the more we feel like doing so is working out OK, the more placing our hope in Jesus’ order of things will stop coming naturally to us. The more our motivation to live as a disciple will peter out. God just won’t seem as real. So you can see why, if we habitually focus our hearts and our time on adjusting to the present order of things, we probably would be filled with fear and foreboding when we have to face the truth that that whole order is not ultimate. All the things we’ve focused on and invested in will in the end let us down.
But it’s not like that if you have begun at the end, as Advent gives us the chance to do year after year. If you have looked past the present order of things and gotten your perspective in line with Christian truth, you will have a more realistic view. If you have put Jesus first in life and trusted that he is able to arrange all the other good things in the way that he knows is best, when the end comes – either your own end, or the real last days – you will find yourself able to stand up and raise your head and know that while loss of things you’ve been used to is hard, your redemption is drawing near. It’s one of the many great gifts of discipleship. Because we begin at the end, we don’t have to cry out: our world is being shaken! Run for your lives! We cry out, Come, thou long expected Jesus! from our fears and sins release us, now thy gracious kingdom bring!
If you’ve ever rewatched a movie or re-read a book, you have experienced the difference it makes to know the end. When you know the end, you can see the beauty of the construction of the story, the hidden references you missed the first time, you appreciate how it was all put together. And so in Advent, we begin at the end. We begin with ultimate questions: Where is my life headed? Where is the universe headed? What’s the last chapter of the story of the world? What is the real situation we are in as human beings? What deserves to be my top priority?
Many of us, these last months, have lost sight of those kinds of questions. Of course those who have most completely lost sight of them are not with us at Mass anymore. But even those of us who are here, let’s be honest, we have been shaken these past months, nearly all of us. Even those of us who do know the end. We have found ourselves staring dully as we scroll endlessly through our phones, or having one too many cocktails a few too many times, or being too numb to make the simple efforts of showing up in the communities that used to mean so much for us. And today, the Bible warns us, Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.
The first Sunday of Advent is a time to accept the grace of starting again. To come to Christian truth, and Christian tools, and Christian belonging, afresh. On the first Sunday of Advent, we begin at the end: where is all this going? Who holds the future? The present order of things has no idea of the answers to questions like that. But your Bible can tell you. The liturgical year can tell you. The Mass can tell you. Jesus can tell you. Happy new year.
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