Today we enter the season of Advent. It is, as churchgoers have heard preached innumerable times, a season for disrupting norms, stepping outside of our typical routine, taking a break from the usual crush of our lives, granting ourselves permission, patiently and without distraction, to prepare ourselves for the return of the Lord.
But seriously, can you imagine a year in which we need Advent less? For eight and a half months life has been one long season of Advent. Our norms have been so disrupted for so long that we have trouble remembering what they were. Many of us may even have settled into such a somnolent, hazy state-of-being over the months that we’ve almost forgotten the world ever was normal. That is, until something like the Thanksgiving holiday jars us into remembering, as we cancel plans to be with family and friends, set fewer places at the table, connect to give thanks over Zoom because it’s better than nothing. Then we awaken from our stupor like Rip Van Winkle, and we are reminded that we are waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
Of course, we are waiting on a vaccine against COVID-19, so that our lives can return to normal. Promising news has been released in the past couple of weeks about four separate vaccines that appear to provide solid protection against COVID. Hopefully, these vaccines will be available by the spring. That said, no one is suggesting that our world is likely to be as carefree as it was before COVID’s emergence. Like medieval societies that learned to live with the plague, we will be negotiating coronavirus from now on.
Often, in this most surreal year, it seems as if we’re waiting on the other shoe to drop. Every time some new horror emerges—remember when “Murder Hornets” appeared in the Pacific Northwest a few months ago?—we catch ourselves saying with a nervous laugh, “Thanks, 2020.” Other events, including racial strife and a presidential election, are too grim even to muster an anxious chuckle.
We want these things, and everything related to 2020, to end. We want something new and hopeful to arrive. We are exhausted by our waiting—we’re at our wits’ end—and so rather than celebrate Advent, we may find ourselves saying, “Enough waiting already!” But what if we’ve misunderstood Advent all along? What if our conventional notion of waiting as the anticipation of a chronological end or beginning is different from what Advent is all about?
Today in Mark’s Gospel we read the last portion of what scholars call Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” the final verses of a harrowing description of terrible things, both natural and manmade, that will happen in the world. For two thousand years many have contended that this passage refers to the end times, predicted when the events would occur, and attempted rationally to interpret events in their own lifetimes as evidence that the waiting is over and the end has finally arrived.
The problem with such scenarios is that, so far, each one has been wrong. And that’s because the events mentioned in Mark 13, though terrible, are terribly common. In other words, all the things described just before today’s reading—wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, betrayals, and the tearing down of the temples that define our lives—happen all the time. They happened yesterday. They’ll happen today. They will most assuredly happen tomorrow. Yes, they are terrible. And yet, the world keeps spinning.
Then, there is that curious promise by Jesus, that his own “generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Was Jesus himself wrong? Did he misread God’s plan and intention? I don’t think so. I think Jesus understood entirely, though we do not. See, I don’t believe Jesus is talking about the once-and-for-all chronological end of the world or a future event upon which we must wait for Jesus’ return. That’s not the character of Advent waiting.
I believe Jesus means it when he says that the generation alive when he spoke would encounter both the terrible events he describes and his own return, just as I believe every generation since, including our own, has experienced these things.
In other words, what Jesus reveals today is what some theologians have called “sapiential” or “realized” eschatology. That means that, rather than the return of Jesus occurring at some future moment at the end of time, the return of Jesus happens now, in the midst of the trying and terrible things we encounter each day. If we keep awake, if we have quickened hearts and open eyes, then as our very lives skirt disaster, the Son of Man returns with power and glory, girding us and transforming us in the midst of the events around us.
Let me tell you a story. The summer my son Griffin was five years old, Jill and I spent a hot summer day with him at a beachfront water park. Because we were splashing in the water all day, as still relatively new parents it didn’t occur to us to monitor Griffin’s water intake. Upon leaving the park in the late afternoon, within minutes of strapping Griffin into his booster seat, he became wilted and lethargic. Foolishly, we let him sleep, and it wasn’t until a few hours later when we couldn’t rouse him that we realized something beyond fatigue was terribly wrong. And so, I strapped my limp son back into his booster seat and careened along the twenty miles of highway to the nearest emergency room. The waiting of that drive was an eternity, and for the first few minutes I tried—hyperrational creature that I am—to reason my way to a solution, to power my own way through the waiting to its end and the arrival of something different. I rehearsed the day and the wrong turns we’d made, as if I could undo them. I negotiated with the cosmos how this would never happen again. Very quickly, my thinking exhausted both my body and my hope, but it didn’t remedy the mess I was in or get me to the hospital any faster.
And then, at some point along that dark, frantic, and lonely drive, an old church camp song, Taize-like in its repetition, arose in my consciousness. My mind quit racing and I began singing it over and over:
Father, I adore you, and I lay my life before you. How I love you.
Jesus, I adore you, and I lay my life before you. How I love you.
Spirit, I adore you, and I lay my life before you. How I love you.
In the midst of the song, Christ returned, his presence as real to me as the air I breathed. Like the eye of a hurricane, Christ created a stable and peaceful center in the midst of the storm and met me there. I could not have found that place by myself. The best I could do was keep my eyes open, stay awake to the arrival of Jesus as the doctor and nurse worked faithfully to awaken my son.
The experience wasn’t rational. I didn’t think, “If I love God, everything will work out.” This was something different. Though the harrowing event of Griffin’s heat exhaustion was nowhere near over—and, indeed, there was no way to predict its outcome—in an essential way my waiting ended. Who I was in the midst of the ongoing turmoil was transformed by Christ’s return. The Season of Advent is about waiting upon the return of Jesus, but it need not look to the chronological future. Advent is about the return of Jesus in every generation, including our own. After eight and a half months, you may be exhausted in your body, and you may nearly have exhausted your hope. But it turns out that casting our gaze to 2021 or any future is myopic. Who knows what may or may not happen then? Rather, Advent is about staying awake now, in this and every moment, for the return of the Son of God who comes again and again and again, to end our waiting and transform our hope into the joy of Christ’s own living presence. When that happens, it turns out that the old world does, indeed, end, and the new world begins. And no terror, no turmoil, no illness, no threat can touch that world. Keep awake! Christ returns, perhaps this very day.