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.
If someone had sat us down two years ago and told us that much of what we love would be changed or taken away from us entirely over the course of 2020 and 2021, I think we would have laughed. A catastrophe of this magnitude and length would simply have been beyond our ability to imagine. It wouldn’t be worth thinking about seriously because dwelling on the cost of prolonged isolation, mixed scientific and political messaging, and the death of hundreds of thousands of people is pretty clearly an unhealthy exercise.
Yet here we are. Everything we love has changed, and we’re still scrambling to make something of what’s left.
I begin there today because I think our collective pandemic experience puts us in a unique position to empathize with Jesus’ disciples, who have just learned that the Temple they love will be destroyed. “‘Do you see these great buildings?’ Jesus asks. ‘There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” Everything you love will change, Jesus says — and the disciples simply don’t know what to do with that knowledge.
So they ask him privately, “‘When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’ And Jesus begins to tell them about the false prophets who will come bearing his name and how the disciples will hear of wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and famines. “Do not be alarmed,” he says. “This must take place, but the end is not yet. . . . These are just the beginning of the birth pangs.’”
We can almost see the expressions on the disciples’ faces — their wide eyes, their clenched jaws — at hearing this news. Everything you love will change, Jesus says. The places you go, the people you see, the little things you took for granted because they were so much a part of your life — all of it will change, will be gone in an instant. And that’s just the beginning.
What could be worse news? Wars and natural disasters are life-changing events; but to have the core of one’s faith left in rubble is a waking nightmare, the kind that you can’t shake even months and years later. The Temple was a part of the disciples’ home, a cherished part of their lives. And it would all be destroyed.
To make way for something better.
Not that that was the thought that came to them in the moment. The worry was too present, like a weight on their shoulders or pressure in their chests. They couldn’t possibly imagine the gift that would be given them when the Temple was destroyed, only to be raised three days later.
And yet this is the path onto which the disciples have stepped. The path we also walk.
The disciples will suffer. We will suffer. Everything we love will be radically changed — whether by the marching armies of Rome, by a years-long pandemic, or simply by time; but like the woman who cannot imagine surviving the pain of childbirth, there will come a moment when the suffering is nothing compared to the new life before us.
Looking back, the disciples will grieve what they have lost, just like we grieve what we have lost. We shed tears over what once was, knowing that the past held both beauty and goodness. But then there will come a day when the story resolves, when the pieces click into place, and we turn our eyes toward the one who is life incarnate, who “by a single offering . . . has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” knowing that by his sacrifice, the path our lives take will never end in the valley of the shadow of death.
And in that moment, when our hearts are lifted up to the heavens, we will praise God, saying, “O Lord, you are my portion and my cup . . . I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.” Because God is at our right hand, we will not be shaken.
We shall not be shaken because we are washed, we are clean, we are made new in the blood of the Lamb. Through our Savior’s sacrifice, we have a certain hope that we will not be abandoned to the Pit, that we will not be left to struggle forever against the corruption in this world; but that our minds, our hearts, and our bodies — our whole selves — will be redeemed, will be brought into the very presence of God.
And that is a promise that cannot be broken. A fortress that cannot be overrun. A reality that will never change because Jesus himself, God himself, has given his own life to guarantee it.
Brothers and sisters, we are living in a time of loss, a time when our lives have changed before our eyes into something we wouldn’t recognize two years ago. The pain of that is real and present; and we will wrestle with it for years to come. But it is also not the end, for we walk a road that ends in resurrection.
“I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” AMEN.
SAINTS GONNA SAINT
The clergy have had a lot of questions about this, so let me start by saying: No, the Episcopal church does not have a formal canonization process. In other words, while we have feast days on our calendar that commemorate particular Christians, there’s no committee that grades their holiness as an individual and passes judgment on it. In the Anglican communion, we do not pronounce people saints.
Instead we follow what was the practice in the first 1000 years of Christianity, which was not to grade individuals’ virtue, but instead to pay attention when faithful Christians continued to be inspired by someone after their death. Were Christians continuing to find this person’s witness to the Gospel inspiring, were local traditions growing up to celebrate and remember the person, were Christians naturally asking for the person’s prayers? So in essence, was this a believer whose story and actions were still inspiring many people to love Jesus better even several years after their death? Was this a believer whose story and actions might inspire us to love Jesus better right now? Then let’s remember them.
David Brown from Durham Cathedral, who wrote Through The Eyes of the Saints, comments that this is a more useful way to think than saying “Well, St. So and So was perfectly holy. God bless them. Of course, I could never be like that, so I’m off the hook.” Saints are actually meant to put us on the hook, precisely because they are like us. They are not superhuman or superperfect. But they are people who have been notable in letting the presence and teaching of Jesus reveal itself through them, and specifically, reveal itself in the context of a different culture or time period than first century Judea. And that’s really the Christian life, isn’t it? We’re not here because we’re interested in first century Judea, but because we long to experience and reveal Jesus in our own culture and our own time.
Emmanuel has been running a series of Instagram quiz posts on saints the past couple weeks, and they kind of made an effort to point out the different backgrounds of many of the people Christians commemorate: Egyptian, Syrian, African, Asian. Not because we are aiming at checking boxes, but because the Good News of Jesus is that big. I’ve mentioned before that the historian of Christianity, Andrew Walls, has pointed out that most of the great world religions are centered in the same region of the globe where they began. Buddhism has spread, but the Far East is still where the majority of Buddhists live. Islam has spread, but Mecca is still its center today. Hinduism, born in India, remains a predominantly Indian religion.
Christianity is an exception to that rule. Its center keeps moving. Most of its adherents were first in the Middle East, then in North Africa and the Roman Empire. After that, most Christians were in Europe for awhile, and now the center has moved to the Southern Hemisphere. There are about 685 million Christians in Africa, for example, most of them in locally-based churches that have no equivalent in the West. Jesus is wide enough for all of us, and if we act like Christianity is only good news for one kind of person, we are misrepresenting Jesus and the Gospel. The good news of what Jesus has done is for absolutely everybody.
So when we look at the wide variety of the saints, we are helped to imagine how big and how accessible and inclusive the Gospel is. We are helped to notice that Jesus is enough for everyone, of every race and culture, every era, every gender expression, every generation, every body. When Christians are bearing authentic witness to Jesus, we will look as different from each other as the saints do.
In fact, the genuineness of my and your profession of faith can probably in part be evaluated by how much being Christian has connected us to people we would not ordinarily spend time with. People where the only explanation for our connection is Jesus. If we come to church, but while we’re here we limit our relationships to people who are our own age or our own economic group or our own education level, we are simply importing the sinful patterns of the world into the Kingdom.
After all, we come together at church to have sort of a lab -- to live the Kingdom, to show each other and the world what the Kingdom of God looks like. We’re nourished by the life of the Kingdom when we hear the Word of God, fed by the life of the Kingdom when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. Yet you know as well as I do how easy it is, even here right in the middle of our lab for the Kingdom, to behave in ways that contradict the Kingdom. To import the sinful habits of this age that undermine our own faith and our own witness. Of course there are lots of those habits of this age, and we’ve all seen them imported into the church in discouraging ways. But on All Saints Sunday that habit of churchgoers acting as if the world’s groupings define us even here, is particularly worth renouncing.
This is one reason we’re deliberately inviting everyone to mix it up today – to form scavenger hunt teams that are not just people you already know you enjoy, to rotate among stations with Emmanuelites you wouldn’t naturally get to know. It’s why, especially at the food table, we have discussion topics, so that we won’t stand around and import secular norms for chit-chat that undermine why we came to church in the first place. We don’t want to have a secular gathering that just happens to be taking place at the street address of an Episcopal parish. Our situation in the churches today is far too urgent for that. We don’t have that luxury anymore. We need to learn what Christian belonging means, and we need to learn it now.
And we have the saints to help us. We have the proof in them that any distance we think exists between us and Jesus can be bridged. We have the proof that the Gospel is big enough for everyone. We have the proof, in all these very different human lives, of what is possible when you surrender to God. And we have their prayers, that we, too, would surrender.
All you Holy Apostles and Evangelists, Pray for us.
All you Holy Martyrs, Pray for us.
All you Holy Bishops and Confessors, Pray for us.
All you Holy Priests and Levites, Pray for us.
All you Holy Monks and Hermits, Pray for us.
All ye holy men and women, saints of God, make intercession for us. Amen.