“Waiting and Watching”
“Concerning the Season of Advent and Apocalyptic Texts”
December 3, 2006
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
When the revenant came down
We couldn't imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
Oh, history involved itself
Mysterious shade that took its form
Or what it was, incarnation
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes
I clicked onto my son’s My Space page not too long ago, and was promptly swamped in a maelstrom of memory. This is because Ned had this particular Sufjan Stevens song queued up to play, and you know how songs are… how they can absolutely plunge you into another time and place before you have a chance to question or resist. The memories the song evoked for me were of a particular time of waiting and watching, the time when my mother was dying last winter. I had just found Stevens’ album, “Come Feel the Illinoise,” and I must have listened to it in the car a lot driving back and forth to New Jersey, because when I heard those opening piano chords, it felt like a great gong went off in my heart, and I was immediately immersed in my memories of that time, a time of watching someone I loved suffer terribly, both physically and mentally, and a time when I felt inadequate to do anything much at all to ease that suffering.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t really aware of the words of the song back then. All I knew was that somewhere in the middle of the song, Stevens sings out the word “incarnation.” Incarnation, that concept that is so central to Christianity, the taking on of flesh by One who in the natural state is all Spirit; the coming of Jesus Christ. Incarnation. Listening more closely to the song, and looking at the lyrics, I learned a new word—revenant—meaning, one who returns.
It has always intrigued me that we Christians start at the beginning by pondering the ending. Advent, the season that begins today in Christian churches the world over, is the season of waiting and watching in anticipation of the celebration of a birth, the birth of Jesus—the feast of the Incarnation. It’s a season geared toward a beginning, the beginning for Christians, of the solitary human life from which we take our name, our identity, our comfort, and our hope. And what readings do we share to prepare for this beginning? We read, today, a selection from Luke’s gospel that seems to be all about the end—end times, signs of end times, and how we Christians should be waiting and watching for Jesus, the revenant, the one who returns.
I don’t know about you, but I find texts like this a little frightening. All this talk of a time when there are signs in the heavens, and distress on earth among the nations. All this talk about confusion and roaring sea and waves. All this talk of a time when people have fear and foreboding about the world and the absolute mess it’s in. If I had backed up the reading a bit, and read verses 20-24 of this same chapter, we would have heard talk of a time with armies in and around Jerusalem, people fleeing cities for the safety of the countryside because the desolation of war is so great. It is easy to look at the world around us, when it’s not exactly demonstrating a lot of peace on earth and goodwill towards men and women, and when the loudest brand of Christianity out there seems to be encouraging this interpretation, and say, “Yep. This must be it. It can’t get any worse than this.”
There have been a couple times in my life when I awakened in the morning—or, more likely, in the middle of the night—with the thought, “It can’t get any worse than this.” During my divorce. When my mother was dying. There are some people in our lives for whom we experience their death as a kind of apocalypse, an event in which the sky that is our brain opens up, for whom we have to wake up every morning for a long time and relearn all over again the bad news, that they are gone. I wonder if any of you have had the experience of saying to yourself, “It can’t get any worse than this.” Experiences of loss… we’ve just marked another World Aids Day, and 40 million people all over this planet living with (not “dying from”) this disease. Experiences of alienation… times when loneliness and misery are our two closest friends. Experiences of illness, our bodies failing us, turning on us. Experiences of persecution… of being told, whether by word or by action or even by the slightest turn of the head, that we are not wanted, not welcome, not OK. Experiences of addiction, the demon that waits for us in the bottle, the drug, the substance or activity or person who is so very bad for us. It can’t get any worse than this.
Well, this is the gospel, so there is by definition good news for us, even in this text. The first piece of good news I’d like to give you is that fact that, in every single generation since Jesus walked the earth, people have read scripture and believed that the end was near. That’s no exaggeration. In the year 999, noblemen and women all over Europe drove cartsful of their gold, jewels and deeds to their property to the doors of churches and monasteries in exchange for prayers for their immortal souls, in the firm belief that the millennium would mark the return of “the Son of Man in the clouds” and the end of the world as they knew it. On January 1, 1000, the Church had become the wealthiest organization in the world, as well as the largest landholder.
That’s not to be flip about this. There is no doubt in my mind that human beings are now in a position to bring about an apocalypse, whether we do so by melting the polar ice caps or by detonating nuclear weapons or by some yet-unimagined means. But, unlike some, I personally don’t see the end as something we need to rush towards. I also take with a very large grain of salt anyone who claims to look at the newspaper and see a direct correlation with what’s in a passage like this. People have been making those interpretations for two millennia. Sure: one day they’ll be right. But scripture is very clear: only God knows God’s timing; even Jesus is in the dark about this particular event.
The other piece of good news is this: there is a way of waiting and watching that is not a trap, that is part of the path to wholeness and holiness marked out for us by our Savior, the one who returns. This is what Advent is about: holy (wholly) waiting and holy (wholly) watching. I know for most of us, the word “holy” is the surest way to bring on hives. So I am going to propose that we substitute the word that means “fully”—that is, “wholly.” What does it mean to wait and watch wholeheartedly?
This is one of the hardest things to do, when the world around us is giving us an entirely different message, one about buying and decorating and engaging in the busyness of propping up the American consumer culture. It’s amazing, isn’t it? For the world being in such a sorry state, there is one area in which it is fully organized and efficient. That is what some have called the “Christmas Machine,” or even “Christmaszilla.” I’m as indoctrinated as anyone else, and so I am getting nervous, folks, because guess how many Christmas presents I have purchased? Zero. Guess how many lights I have put up on my house? Again, zero! Guess how many Christmas cards I have addressed? Again, the answer is zero! And The Powers That Be—i.e., the guys who run Wall Street and CitiCards and Wegman’s and Target—have been trying to get me to do all these things since before Halloween. There is tremendous pressure on us to celebrate something that actually has very little to do with the Incarnation, with the startling breaking in of the presence of God among us. In fact, I would submit that, if we do everything the culture around us is pressuring us to do, it is highly unlikely we will even begin to have the opportunity to experience that presence. We’ll simply find ourselves collapsed in a heap on December 25th, watching the endless loop of “A Christmas Story” on TBS, worrying that that kid might not get his official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle.
There must be another way. There simply must be. And if we look back—even before the time of Jesus—we may be able to get some helpful hints in finding that other way.
In ancient times, before the dawn of Jesus Christ, people marked the coming of winter by making a circle of fire. Each year, as the days grew shorter, a dread fell upon the people that the sun was going away, never to return. They were reading signs in the sun, the moon and the stars that seemed to be forecasting the end of the world. They determined that they would woo the gods to bring the sun back by turning all their attention to this terrifying problem. And they focused their attention by slowing down, ceasing to work, and allowing daily activities to come to a standstill. They took the wheels off their carts and adorned them with greenery and candles, and brought them indoors. As the winter solstice passed and days began to grow longer again, they held joyous festival to mark the triumph of the sun over the threatening darkness.
Now, as many of you know, we don’t really know when the birth of Jesus was, whether it was December 25 or July 4. But when Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they saw the wisdom of this particular pre-Christian observance. The wheel of fire was adapted into the Advent wreath, bearing four candles to mark the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Some folks have ascribed different meanings to each candle—one week is hope, one is faith, etc. I have heard the pink candle explained in every way from “It’s for Mary” to “It’s for Joy” to “God was hoping for a girl.” But the truth is much simpler than that: the candles are markers for time. They are objects to help us to define and note our waiting. They are reminders to us that we are powerless over so many people and places and things, and that sometimes the way we can be most wholeheartedly present in life is by quiet, watchful waiting.
So I invite you to do something countercultural and subversive this Advent. I invite you to do nothing. Absolutely nothing, for five minutes a day, or 30, or whatever you can carve out of your schedule that doesn’t make you nuts. Wait out the situations you are fretting over with quiet attentiveness, looking at and inhaling the fragrance of a candle. Wait out the sense that “This is as bad as it gets” by meditating upon the lace of a snowflake, should one become available. Wait out the test results, or the painful moment in your relationship, or even the figgy pudding with breathing, in and out, in and out. And through it all, know this: God is waiting and watching too, for precisely the right moment to burst into your life with something completely unforeseen, something completely blessed, and something completely new. Amen.