In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is difficult to believe, but here we are at the first Sunday of Advent. As I mentioned last Sunday, during Advent we prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. And the relevant passages of scripture that treat this theme are pretty ominous. Today, Jesus says to his disciples:
…in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13.24-25)
The Venerable Bede says that “…the stars in the day of judgment shall appear obscure, not by any lessening of their own light, but because of the brightness of the true light, that is, of the most high Judge coming upon them…” This could of course be taken literally – to mean that celestial bodies will literally grow dim as the end of the world draws near. But reading between the lines, and drawing on St. Bede’s interpretation, we might say that Jesus means us to understand that the more we allow him to be the one who illuminates our lives, that is to say, the more we allow him to give us direction, to illuminate the pathways of our lives, the more we orient ourselves within the world by his teaching and example, the less influence “the powers that be” within the world will hold sway over us – the less will we heed them with respect to our decision-making.
It is like when you are in your house and the power goes out. You light candles in the darkness, and after awhile, your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and the dim light of the candles enables you to get around. But when suddenly the power is restored and all the lights in the house come back on, everything is brightly illuminated, and although the candles are still burning, you do not notice their light. The light that they cast is inconsequential as compared with the brightness of the restored power.
The closer we get to the Lord’s coming, the less do the world’s powers and priorities have any influence in our lives. This is true not just considered historically – that is to say, not merely as the world grows ever more weary and lawless – but in our personal lives as well, as we come ever closer to seeing the king in his majesty and his beauty. And on this score, we do well to remember that however long this world lasts, every one of us will comparatively soon stand before our Savior and Judge. If this world lasts another million years, nevertheless each of our own personal worlds will end in a relatively little while, when we die; and so it behooves us to spend our energy in learning to be guided by the light of the Son of Glory.
Blessed Johhn Henry Newman once said:
O my brethren, pray [to Jesus] to give you the heart to seek him in sincerity. Pray him to make you… earnest. You have one work only, to bear your cross after him. Resolve in his strength to do so. Resolve to be no longer beguiled by “shadows of religion”, by words, or by disputings, or by notions, or by high professions, or by excuses, or by the world’s promises or threats. Pray him to give you what Scripture calls “an honest and good heart”, or “a perfect heart”, and, without waiting, begin at once to obey him with the best heart you have. Any obedience is better than none, — any profession which is disjoined from obedience, is a mere pretence and deceit. Any religion which does not bring you nearer to God is of the world. You have to seek his face; [and] obedience is the only way of seeking him. All your duties are obediences.
We must learn to be children of the apocalypse (which means “revelation”) – we must be offspring of God’s self-disclosure, born of the water and the blood flowing from the heart of Jesus, learning to recognize him easily as we go about our lives, and allowing his teaching and example to direct our decisions, as for us the world’s influence wanes, and we cease to walk by its light.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ words when he says, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” (Mark 13.32)? Isn’t he supposed to know everything? Indeed, he is supposed to know everything, and he does. St. Hilary of Poitiers said that Jesus’ supposed ignorance of “that day” and “that hour,” is a “sacrament of his silence,” that it is related to the occlusion of all wisdom and knowledge in him – just as St. Paul says that believers in Jesus “have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” (Colossians 2.2-3).
Today’s Gospel reading concludes with Jesus’ exhortation for his disciples to watch for his advent, his coming. Four times in the last five verses of this reading Jesus uses the word “watch.”
Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning — lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (Mark 13.33ff)
Watchfulness and attentiveness – these are the hallmarks of the disciples of the Lord until he returns. But to what kind of attention are we being exhorted? St. Gregory of Nyssa commented on the “wakeful sleep” of the Beloved in the Song of Songs, who said that she “slept while my heart was awake.” Gregory says, “When all of these [outward senses] have been lulled into inactivity by a kind of sleep, the heart’s functioning becomes pure, the reason looks up to heaven, unshaken and unperturbed by the motion of the senses.”
This means nothing other than that in order for us to understand things from the treasures of knowledge and wisdom veiled in Christ, we must enter the darkness of sleep with respect to the world. For us, the world’s sources of light must become darkened, so that “the brightness of the true light” may flood our lives, enabling us go out to meet the Bridegroom when he comes, but also in the meantime, to negotiate our lives in this world without stumbling.
St. Paul speaks of this dynamic in today’s epistle reading, and exhorts his hearers to rely on God, to a greater trust in the power of God working in our lives, which is the fruit of prayer. St. Paul says:
in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our primary job, as disciples of Jesus, is to wait and to watch for his coming, his advent. But this kind of waiting and watching is not passive, because it is undertaken in FAITH – understanding and believing that God has indeed enriched us with his grace and his power; and that therefore we need not be afraid as this world’s sun is darkened, and its stars fall from heaven; it only means that our King and Savior now draws near. Come, let us adore him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.