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Unlike the Ones We Used to Know
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
December 3, 2017
A reading from the Gospel of Mark
“But in those days, after that suffering,
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.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
It’s so nice to have a chance to visit with one of everybody’s favorite Christmas stories. I mean, the season has finally come in full force. The sanctuary is decorated. The greens have materialized all around the church. The lights have materialized all around the city. Yesterday at our house we even got organized enough to put up our own decorations, for our first Christmas here in Austin, and so we found out which glass ornaments didn’t survive the move and we figured out where old crèche sets get to live in a new house and we discovered what happens when you accidentally store Christmas candles in the garage during the Texas summer. Also we ordered some new candles. We even had a ritualized viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, with the little tree that could, and with that dramatic moment when Linus steps onto the stage to read the Gospel, and the spotlight comes down, and the crowd goes quiet, and he sets up the good news of great joy, one of those favorite Christmas stories, “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.”
This is the word of the Lord?
Okay, so that’s not Linus’s text. But it is our text, and it is not exactly overcome with Christmas cheer. On the first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary traditionally guides us towards one of a variety of apocalyptic prophesies of the second coming of the Messiah, and this year is no different; this year we pick up in the middle of a long discourse in Mark’s Gospel about the fate of the world in the aftermath of Jesus’s eventual death. Echoing language that we will find again in parts of the epistles, Jesus warns his disciples that after he’s gone they’ll have to watch out for all kinds of false gospels, all kinds of false prophets, all kinds of folks going around masquerading like some resurrected Messiah, all kinds of familiar-looking folks talking familiar-sounding stuff, but you’re going to have to filter all that out, Jesus says. And if you want to know the truth of it. If you want to know what the real signs are that I’m on my way back. Here we go. I’ll tell you. “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.” And none of that will be familiar at all.
I admit that it doesn’t seem familiar at all. It hardly seems right to stand up here with Christmas on full display and lay in to you with the darkening of the sun and the darkening of the moon and the stars falling from heaven. I feel like if we were properly decorated for Christmas I should stand here and say something about the People Who Walked in Darkness who have seen a Great Light or maybe the one about the Voice Crying out in the Wilderness or maybe even something about the decree from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered, and Joseph and Mary went to the city of David, and in that region there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flock and I know you know that one because Linus tells it so well. That’s what Christmas is supposed to be, the midwinter’s night, and the angels’ song, and all the visitors huddled up around the manger, and there are chestnuts roasting on the open fire, and there are carolers standing just outside the door and it all smells like Frasier pine and hot chocolate and a light snow meanders down just outside the window, and sleigh bells, how could I forget, of course, there are always sleigh bells at the manger, because wouldn’t you know that ancient Bethlehem looks and sounds very much like a Norman Rockwell painting of New England in winter.
That’s the thing with Christmas. It comes with baggage. Like no other holiday, like no other moment in the church year or in the secular year, Christmas comes with baggage. Everybody in this sanctuary this morning somewhere deep down knows exactly what Christmas is supposed to look like. What it’s supposed to feel like. What it’s supposed to smell like. Can you picture it, somewhere far back into the clouds of memory? Does it smell like something from your parents’ kitchen, with cinnamon and nutmeg and brown sugar? Does it sound like your brother or your sister’s anticipation as they run pitter-patter downstairs first thing Christmas morning? Can you open the window and feel the crispness of the midwinter air, the lingering smell of autumn leaves, the absolute stillness of midwinter snow. I can feel in the memories my soul the absolute stillness of midwinter snow, just like the ones I used to know.
But then yesterday I went to get a Christmas tree and brought it inside the house and got it all installed and did the whole thing sweating in a t-shirt and sandals which is an experience for which there is no room in my liturgical imagination.
That’s the thing about Christmas. We show up on this first Sunday of Advent seeking the familiar way to the flocks and fields and the shepherds by night. But instead some years we find the stars falling from heaven, and the sun will not give off its light, and the moon itself going dark. Instead, some years we find Christmas very much not the comfortable story we remembered it to be. Instead, some years we find the Advent journey very much not the familiar path we’ve walked so many times before. Some years feel more apocalyptic than others. Maybe even this one. In a year too full of storm winds and flood waters. In a year too full of political rancor and crass indecency. In a year too full of hatred and bigotry and greed. In a year too full of the ongoing callous neglect of too many of God’s children, as if in that regard any year was substantially different than the one before. In this apocalyptic year, how can we possibly expect to feel like what we’re supposed to feel like at Christmas? Or perhaps it’s more personal. Christmas has a way of reminding us of the empty spaces in our own lives. Empty chairs are particularly empty at Christmas. Empty homes are particularly empty at Christmas. The point is, we all remember what it’s supposed to feel like, with the nutmeg and the pitter-patter and the crisp winter air and somewhere an echo of Joy to the World but here on the first Sunday of Advent with three weeks and one day left to get there I don’t know if we’re gonna make it. This year may not be our year.
But Advent is never about this year. Our text isn’t really about this year. “In those days, after that suffering,” Jesus says, in some time yet to come. Jesus doesn’t offer a lot of short-term guarantees. Jesus offers the long arc of the future yet to come. “In those days, after that suffering,” after all of the slings and arrows yet to come in the days and weeks and years after I have come and gone, in some time different than this one, then, in God’s time, when God is ready, then this apocalyptic portrait will reveal itself, the sun darkened, the moon lightless. The point is that we gather in this Advent season to anticipate the coming again of Christ into the world, and we do it with all of last year’s decorations and we do it with all of last year’s routines and we do it with all of last year’s recipes but the Gospel is that when Christ comes back, it won’t look like anything that we’ve ever seen before. The point is that when Christ comes back it won’t feel like anything that we’ve ever felt before. The point is that we gather around this Advent wreath in eager anticipation of some world waiting to be born, and we surely don’t know who it’s going to be when it grows up. At the end of his career, after how many hundreds of paintings of the quotidian pleasures of American life, Christmastime New England towns and otherwise, someone asked Norman Rockwell which one of his paintings was his favorite. And his answer,
of course, was “The Next One.” So much the same with Advent. It’s not about this Christmas at all. It’s about the next one.
Unlike the ones we used to know. And so much for the better. During the American Civil War, sickness was just as fatal as death on the battlefield. Typhoid, smallpox, malaria — two thirds of Civil War deaths came from diseases that festered in the unsanitary conditions of the camps. Lesser-known among those Civil War diseases was a condition of severe homesickness. Young boys who had never previously left the immediate orbit of their families were taken halfway across the country with little ability to communicate with their loved ones; the dislocation was unlike anything that we as a mobile and wired society could possibly understand. Civil War doctors connected it to a variety of physical symptoms, including heart palpitations, lesions, and even internal organ damage. Letters from family could alleviate the symptoms, or they could at times make them worse; some songs were expressly forbidden in camps on the grounds that they could arouse a sense of wistfulness and homesickness that would “unnerve our suffering men.” Here’s the thing: they called this extreme homesickness “nostalgia.” In five years of wartime, more than 5,000 Union soldiers were diagnosed. Extreme nostalgia. Seventy-four died.
Of course it was worst around the Holidays. The tree goes up. The greens come out. The candles get lit. Everyone wants to go home, back somewhere where everything feels safe and cozy and warm. And I certainly hope for each of you that you celebrate this year a Christmas full of warmth and full of grace and laughter and joy. But if it gets a little cold. Or if the grace runs low. If the stars start to fall and the sun goes a little dark. Remember this. Christmas doesn’t live in the past. It feels like it, sometimes. It feels like it, some years. Some years just feel like they aren’t right. Some years just feel like they don’t have enough nutmeg, or enough pitter-patter, or the right crisp in the midwinter air. But Christmas isn’t a memory. Christmas isn’t about all the portraits of all the days gone by. Christmas is about the next one. This is the promise of the Gospel, that Advent waits for next Christmas. In those days. After that suffering. Next Christmas we’re going to get this right. Next Christmas it will feel just right. Next Christmas it will smell just right, unfamiliar but just right, something we’ve never known before, something with a hint of justice and mercy. Next Christmas it will sound just right, unfamiliar but just right, something we’ve never heard before, something that echoes with the choirs of all the saints. Next Christmas will feel just right, unfamiliar but just right, something we’ve never felt before, something in the air like peace.
Because Christmas isn’t a memory. Christmas is a promise. Christmas is the promise that the God who came already into this messy, broken, fragile, frail world. The God who came into this cold, graceless, joyless world. The God who was born into this muddy mess of a world. Christmas is a promise that that same God comes for each of us. For all of us. For a homecoming yet to be. Christmas is a promise of a world yet to be born. Christmas is a promise of a kingdom yet to come. Christmas is a promise that the world we await is far better than the world we have known. Christmas is a promise. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Just you wait. Amen.