I preached this sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Isaiah 64:1-9.
Welcome to Advent.
Welcome to expectation, and wondering, and hoping and trusting that things will get better, that God will keep the promises made–even when we do not.
Welcome to the time when bits of light pierce the shadows, when small kind gestures might save a life, including your own. Welcome to the humble, lowly shape that true love takes when it is stripped of its finery.
Welcome to the pangs of yearning, the slivers of memory and song that come unbidden as you toss and turn at 3am. Welcome to the dull tick of the clock over the kitchen sink, and the peal of the bells, the thick silence of an empty house and the sound of children laughing in the snow.
Welcome to the collision of despair and joy that is, quite simply, what it is like to be here, to live and die here, in this time and place, looking for signs of heaven.
Welcome to the precious, lonely, lovely wait.
I have always cherished Advent, this first liturgical season of the Church year, and I think a lot of Episcopalians feel the same way. We are drawn, for some reason, to its particular blend of sights, sounds, and silences, the quiet and unadorned sobriety, the crisp way that it cuts through thin sentimentality to the deep places within us where Christ gestates.
But for all our love of Advent, I have also wondered, at times, whether we fully understand what the season is and what it is asking of us. Because when we speak of it as a season of waiting and preparation, we do not mean that it is simply a means to an end, waiting and preparing for the Nativity, nor even is it solely about waiting and watching for Christ’s return at the end of history, as today’s gospel lesson reminds us to do.
It is, of course, about both of these things, but alongside them, it is also about learning how to live, now, and forever, with the waiting itself, how to become a people that can bear the waiting, maybe even flourish in it—that ambiguous time that falls between what is promised and what is resolved, when we are just as liable to distraction and despair as we are to purposeful focus. This is the season that probes what the poet W.H. Auden called “the Time Being,” the days in which banality and transcendence both tug at us, making our lives a muddle of sorts, a mixture of angels and toothaches, of God’s face and grocery lists.
The waiting and the wondering of Advent is, really, what most of the days of our lives will look like in any season, and it invites us to learn to be ok with that, to not let the wait dull our senses or harden our hearts. “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,” writes Auden, probably because there is so much of it, so much time spent waiting that we might forget what we are waiting for.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” Isaiah cries out in today’s reading, because Israel has been waiting so long in exile that they have nearly forgotten who God is and what God can do. So he lifts his voice to heaven, desperately, urgently: “You are our father. We are the clay and you are our potter.” Do something, God, do something now, something decisive, something that will help us remember what it feels like to be happy again, to make the world make sense again. End our exile, God. End our desolation. End our waiting.
I think, perhaps, that many of us have prayed something similar this year. The pandemic, and all that it as wrought, has escalated our own sense of what it is to wait, what it is to feel estranged from the normal patterns of life. Like Isaiah, we, too, might find ourselves crying out for resolution and restoration. To hug our friends and family members again. To worship in the ways that we love again. To feel at home out in the world again.
But as much as I, too, long for all of those things, and as much as I trust that we will make it through this challenging time, I also think we need to remember what this waiting feels like right now—the weariness and the frustration and the tenderness of our hearts.
I think we need to really hold onto this memory of how vulnerable and exhausted this year has made us feel, how uncertain and tremulous the future can seem when the present is drained of security and comfort.
Because this feeling, this deep mixture of grief and hope and determination? THIS is the real experience of Advent, this has ALWAYS been what Advent pointed to—not just a cozy wait by the fireside with tea and cookies, not a pop-psychololgy pause for self care in between bouts of frantic consumerism, but this type of waiting, the real kind, the grip the arms-of-your chair kind, the same kind that precedes medical test results, the kind that you feel when a loved one is serving in combat or as a first-responder, the collective waiting of the downtrodden and the poor throughout human history, the heaving cries for justice, for relief, for solace; the waiting for a letter than never comes; the wordless tears that stream down your face when you think nobody is looking.
The waiting that can only be satisfied, can only be fulfilled by something other than our own feeble attempts at virtue or self-soothing or control. The waiting for God; the waiting for the holy, vivifying, sanctifying, tender terror of God, who will annihilate our forgetfulness, who will consummate our longing “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”
This is what we are doing in Advent—this is what we are reckoning with, what we are learning to name and to carry, because it is real life, without ornamentation, and it is something that every person must face. And we thank God that we have been given—and will discover again in a few weeks’ time, what all this waiting is for.
So today, for the “Time Being,” may our waiting be compassionate, rather than apathetic; and if it cannot be joyful, may it at least be honest. May our waiting carve out a space within us, big enough to hold the pain and the promise that is ours to bear for one another. Big enough to contain the dreams of all that a new year, a new world might be. Big enough to be filled by God’s once and future coming, as child, as fire, as Lord.
Welcome to Advent. Welcome to your life.