A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent
Margaret D. McGee
So we make full circle and return again to the beginning, to Advent, the opening of a new year in the life of faith. The season when, around the world, hearts break open for the coming of the Christ child. A season when even our own rather damp, gray world may be revealed as the best and only place to hold the birth of love, life, and light.
Like all true births, this birth will take its own sweet time, regardless of how many shopping days are left. It’s a birth that must take place in the very midst of us, because the labor of love begins only when surrounded by the grit and straw and blood of everyday human life.
Over the next three Sundays, in the Gospel readings, we meet again some of the most compelling characters and stories in the canon. John the Baptist – that wild man – makes his annual Advent appearance, his voice calling out in the wilderness, challenging all of society to repent, and turn to a life of radical equality and justice. John knows in his bones that something big is coming, and it’s time to wake up and get ready. A very public figure in his day, the Baptizer’s fiery message resonated through all the social strata of his occupied land.
Then later this month we meet Joseph – that good man – quietly struggling to discern the right path, when he learns from Mary, his betrothed, that the start of their life together is not going quite as they planned. Faced with a very private dilemma, Joseph shows himself to be a real mensch, a decent man able to let go of pride and act in mercy, taking his unusual family into his heart.
In other years in the annual cycle of Advent readings, Joseph makes way for the women of Advent: Mary, mother of Jesus, and her relative Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The young maid and the old wife, each surprised by an unlikely pregnancy, each supporting the other in new lives and roles that, to outside eyes, may have seemed completely beyond them.
John the Baptist, Joseph the carpenter, the maiden Mary, Elizabeth, friend and wife—four very different people with the common experience having their lives turned upside down by something greater than themselves, something that carries its own agenda. Entering whole-heartedly into new life and love, each one sheds preconceptions about the course of their own lives, their proper role in the world, even the way the world operates—each one awake to the possibility of heaven drawing near, of God among us, breaking in and making all things new.
And crucially, all four of these interesting characters show themselves to be able to wait for new life to come to full, ripe fruit—each one awake to the glory all around them, all the while they wait.
The season of Advent honors waiting. Waiting not as dead time, or as wasted time, but as pregnant time. Gestating time. Waiting with anticipation.
I sometimes think I’ll spend my whole life just learning how to wait. Here’s a funny thing about my husband, David. When he feels pushed to hurry up—by a car behind him on the road, for example, or an unexpected deadline, a wife’s agenda—something in his psychology just slows right down. When we were first married, this was one of the most challenging things for me to figure out. I had to realize that he was not purposely trying to drive me mad; it’s just the way his mind works. And that if I simply backed off, and didn’t push, have a little faith, then whatever I wanted to happen sooner would most likely happen, in reasonably good time. Married life has taught me lessons in how to wait.
And professional life had its lessons, too. I’m a writer, and have been a writer ever since I could read. After college, I hoped someday to make my living as a novelist. So I attended writers conferences, and heard from people who already lived in that exalted realm that the typical road to publication was long, difficult, and involved a lot of rejection. I remember one popular novelist, a keynote speaker, who said that her first published book was actually the fourth that she wrote, and that this was typical in the world of novel-writing. A perfectly normal pace.
“Go for it,” she said to us, “good luck, don’t give up, and don’t quit your day job.” I believed in her description of the typical writer’s professional path, because I heard many similar stories from other pro’s at the conference.
And then I went home, and got down on my knees, and prayed, “Please God, don’t make me go through all that. I understand, dear Lord, that other writers have to fail many times before they succeed. But, not everybody, right? And not me. Let me be the exception, because I’m not good at eating humble pie. Okay? Thanks. Amen.”
So, three unpublished novels later, after years of various day jobs, my first book finally came out, a work of non-fiction, as it turned out, called Stumbling Toward God. You could paper my house in rejections, inside and out, including rejections for Stumbling Toward God, which was turned down more than two hundred times before it finally found its publisher.
Now, I do not think God was getting back at me for my prayer, because it doesn’t seem to me that God works that way. I think I just wasn’t ready, but didn’t know it. The full term of my gestation as a writer turned out to be longer and a little more challenging than I’d hoped for.
I had to drop some baggage on my way. That sense of entitlement, of being more deserving than others. A sense of invincibility, of moving through life smoothly from one triumph to the next, unwounded. Able to offer a helping hand to those in need, maybe, but not really needing help myself.
Those illusions had to go. And because I was deeply attached to some of them, they didn’t go easy.
In our reading from Matthew this morning, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man—a phrase associated with the Messiah—and he warns the people to stay awake, because they don’t know when their Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:36-44)
Now, you would think that the coming of the Messiah would be a good thing, but here Jesus compares the event with Noah’s flood, when oblivious people are swept away, and later with a thief in the night, who breaks in and robs the sleeping owner’s home.
Difficult images, as we head into Christmas. It helps me to remember that Jesus spoke in images, in stories and parables, saying, Look, it’s like this. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like a pearl of great price. So how might the coming of the Lord be like Noah’s flood? When the Creator of all Life enters into life on earth, what’s gonna be swept away?
From my experience on the road to publication, one thing swept away might be that very sense of entitlement that inspired me to pray, “Not me.” Or any idea that I’m somehow separate and exempt from the shared conditions of human life, separate from the brokenness of this world. Or anything that lets me view my personal world, my accomplishments, or my own goods as mine alone, separate from the commonwealth, the common wealth of God’s world.
And how might the birth of Love Incarnate, made in love and for love, how might that be like a thief in the night? If I’m asleep in my own little world when Love comes busting out of the womb, what might be taken away from me?
Maybe, a cherished dream about how love is “supposed” to work. Like the idea that family love is best and only expressed in a perfect family gathering. The whole gene pool at the table, everyone glad to be there, getting along for once, the sweet potatoes not too sweet, and the cranberries not too sour, and no burnt pie crusts.
We laugh, because we know. If we’re resting all our hopes for a happy Christmas on a perfect family gathering, then Jesus is gonna come like a thief in the night and steal those delusions right away. And the tighter we close our eyes, the harder we cling to our dreams, the more painful that loss will be.
“You know what time it is,” Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near.” (Romans 13:11-14)
And here’s the good news. After the flood, after the thief has done his work—daylight sweeping through the house—we turn to what remains, and discover the pearl that’s been hidden all along underneath all that dross that’s swept away.
Now that we don’t have to be perfect, we can be ourselves. Stepping down the banks of the River Jordan, feet muddy and wet, ready for the calloused hands of John the Baptist to rest on our heads. Here we are surrounded by friends and family, neighbors and strangers, awake to the possibility of meeting love and joy at any moment, in every chance encounter in the big gene pool.
We can be like Joseph, letting go of the imaginary ideal family that looks proper or even normal to the neighbors, and instead making a home to raise up hope, and a love that breaks through all bounds.
We can be like Elizabeth, a friend and mentor in the autumn of life, showing that, in the world our God makes, it is never too late to come to flower and bear new fruit.
We can be Mary, the lowliest of all, the one who carries deep inside the source of life and love, its parts knitting together, growing stronger every day.
The pregnancy takes its own time. And the labor takes its own time. In this season of waiting, it matters how we wait. For salvation, writes Paul, is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.
So let us awake. Awake to the glory present among us in this room today. Awake to the mystery of our God in each moment, a mystery that longs to take shape and form and to live among us again.
Delivered at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Parish in Seattle, Washington, on November 28, 2010