Title: Beware, Keep Alert
Date: Nov 30, 2008
Texts: Ps 80:1-7, 17-19; Isa 64:1-9; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Author: Chris K. Huebner
We come now to the season of Advent. This is, of course, the beginning of the so-called Christian year. And so it would not be inappropriate to greet each other with the recognition that a new year has begun. Among other things, this is important because it serves as a reminder that Christian time is different than other ways of conceiving time. That we have not so greeted one another is but a reminder that we Christians generally live our lives according to a movement of time that is at odds with the time of the church. I suspect the everyday texture of our lives is determined as much by temporal markers such as Black Friday than it is by Advent. It is no wonder we find ourselves so confused. At least I know I’m confused. And I make no promise to be able to undo that confusion. If anything, I think that the collection of lectionary texts we have just heard might add to our confusion by challenging some of the customary ways we have come to understand the season of Advent.
Let me begin by attempting to summarize the general contours of what I want to say this evening in a way that might seem at first blush to be somewhat counter-intuitive: the first and most basic point is that Advent is the most Jewish of Christian seasons. Or, as Rowan Williams puts it, “in Advent … we all become … Jews once more.” (A Ray of Darkness, 5) And yet I wonder whether we have become accustomed to approaching Advent in a way that leaves it more or less stripped of its profoundly Jewish character. If that is the case, then we end up with a version of Christianity that is somehow fundamentally at odds with itself. That is to say, we end up with a church that is insufficiently Christian precisely because it is not properly Jewish. And if such a church is at odds with itself, that is paradoxically because its identity has become far too clear, too pure, too smooth, too neat and tidy. In other words, it is at odds with itself precisely because it is not sufficiently at odds with itself. A church that has lost a sense of the Jewish character of Advent also loses the ability to wrestle with a particular set of tensions and ambiguities that are, I think, essential to its being the church. When Christianity comes, eventually, to define itself over against Judaism, more than anything else it ends up losing a robust sense of the messianic. Christianity’s identification of Jesus as the messiah all too often has the effect of initiating an erasure of the very concept of messiah. By messianic, I mean to point to a sense of radical interruption—an inversion of the so-called laws of history, a revolutionary change that undoes and transforms the ways we have become accustomed to thinking and acting. It is this sense of interruption and revolutionary change that gives rise to the tensions and ambiguities I spoke of earlier. I will say more about this in a moment. For now, I want to suggest that all of this has to do with how we conceive of the relationship between Advent and Christmas. Let me try to explain.
We think of Advent as a season of waiting. We tend to speak of it by invoking notions of preparation and expectation, of anticipation and longing. All of this is entirely appropriate. Advent names an expectation of an event that is to come. It is a preparation for an arrival that we are still waiting for. But where it starts to get interesting and difficult is when we ask questions like the following: what are we waiting for and why? How are we to prepare for this event that is to come? What does our longing and expectation look like? What shape does it take? What sort of posture does it reflect? The starting point from which we must attempt to answer these sorts of questions is, of course, the recognition that Advent is a time of preparation and waiting for Jesus, the messiah. But I’m struck by how easy it is to think about all of this in ways that seem to minimize, if not cancel out altogether, a sense of the messianic character that is necessary if Jesus is to be what we Christians confess him to be. We do this when we think of preparation and expectation in terms of a coming whose existence is somehow known in advance of its actual arrival. We cancel out the logic of the messianic when we think of the messiah as something that we will be sure to recognize when it arrives. And we do this when we think of Advent as the preparation of a goal that we are striving for, a longing that we are somehow responsible for bringing about.
But this is exactly what the two Old Testament texts for today seem to warn us against. Notice that they both emphasize of the anger of God. They both revolve around a plea for God not to be angry even though God has every right to be angry. Another way to say this is that they involve a confession. “We have sinned.” They turn upon a recognition of Israel’s transgression and need for restoration. Why is God angry? Why are the people of Israel in need of restoration? They are in need of restoration because they have taken their future into their own hands. They have tried to reach God. They have become impatient. They have forgotten that their very existence turns upon their being chosen, being called out from the nations. They have forgotten that God comes to us, not the other way around. They have, in short, begun to live in such a way that they have failed to let God be God. Isaiah in particular is very clear about this. He emphasizes the fact that God arrives in ways we do not expect. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” Notice the points of emphasis here. God’s deeds are not expected. God comes down. God works for those who wait. We cannot see or hear any God but God. Or rather, when we try to see or hear God, we can be reasonably confident that it is not God who we will see or hear. This is why we are called upon to wait for God to come to us. If we rush to meet God, it is invariably something other than God that we will find. We hear a similar theme echoed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God is faithful. By him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” And it is equally reflected in the reading from the gospel of Mark: “But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 32-33)
I don’t know about you, but I was struck by the sense of danger that seems to be underscored in this passage. I suspect that we tend not to think of Advent as a particularly dangerous time. But here we are being told to beware, keep alert, and be watchful. There is apparently a danger lurking here. And it would seem that the danger is us. In particular, the danger alluded to here turns upon the fact that our knowledge is not nearly as secure as we think it is. More than anything else, it seems we are here being confronted with the facts of our apparently intractable human capacity for self-deception.
It is in this spirit of confession that we come to the season of Advent. As we enter into the time of expectation that is Advent, we are first of all confronted with the facts of our sinfulness. We yearn for a messiah that we can confidently say we will recognize. We want a messiah who reflects what it is we would identify as best about ourselves. We long for a messiah that will feel familiar, someone we will feel like we know. But our scripture passages for today seem to cut in exactly the opposite direction. This is exactly why Advent is dangerous. It is dangerous because it can all too easily turn into a form of longing and anticipation of something we know is coming, the Jesus we think we’ve got figured out. But it is exactly for this reason that we are called to beware, remain watchful, and keep alert. We tend to think of Advent as a period of time where we gradually come closer and closer to God, a God who comes to us in human form we call Jesus. But notice that the beginning of Advent brings us face to face with the anger of God. If these passages underscore anything, it is on God’s distance or difference from us. The emphasis is not on a God with whom we are becoming increasingly familiar, but one who remains exceedingly strange. And so we might suggest that Advent is a time of preparation that requires us to confess our tendency to forget God, to turn God into something familiar. This is what I mean when I speak of Advent as the most Jewish of Christian seasons. It is Jewish in the sense that it brings us face to face with our seemingly insatiable desire to erect idols. It is Jewish in the sense that it reminds us that our expectations will not be straightforwardly satisfied, that we will not get the messiah we think we are waiting for. It is Jewish because it emphasizes the sense in which God remains beyond our knowledge. It is Jewish because it reflects a longing that will, in a sense, remain frustrated and endlessly deferred.
It seems to me that we often think of Advent as a sort of bridge. Many of our habits of speech about Advent seem to imply that it is a passage that we must take in order to arrive, once again, at that site of holiness called Christmas. We think of Advent as a sort of movement whereby we come ever nearer to the presence of God. Notice, here, that the direction of the movement is from us to God. But this seems to get it exactly the wrong way around. It turns the logic of the messiah inside out. Or at least the lectionary readings we have heard today suggest a rather different picture. In particular, they suggest that God is not something we reach no matter how right we get things, no matter how holy we are. Rather, the logic of the messiah is that God comes to us. And in so doing, our entire way of being and thinking is radically transformed. Here Advent seems to name a gesture that interrupts and reorients. If it names an expectation, it is an expectation of an event that will be explosive and disruptive, and in that sense most profoundly unexpected.
How do we go about preparing for something like this? That is the hard part. And I confess I don’t have a ready answer. And I think the point of Christianity is that none of us really do. But at the very least, it would seem to require a change in how tend to think about the preparation. We often think of preparation as a gradual filling up. We think of it as a process of addition or accumulation, the unfolding of a kind of progress that moves ever forward. Think, for example, of how we speak of preparing for an exam—by filling up our minds with the knowledge that we might reasonably be expected to deliver. There is a place for this sort of preparation. But here we seem to be presented with a rather different image of preparation. It is not so much a filling up as a kind of emptying. It is less a matter of addition than subtraction. It is as much a negative—perhaps even nihilistic—moment as something we would speak of as positive or progressive. That is because the messiah comes as much to defy our expectations as to satisfy them. And this is why Advent is so important. It serves to remind us that we have made Jesus all too familiar, perhaps even idolatrous, and serves to reorient us to his profound strangeness. To quote Rowan Williams once again, it is “a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross.” (A Ray of Darkness, 6)
Another way to put all of this is to suggest that Advent ceases to be Advent when it becomes overdetermined by Christmas. We North American Christians seem to be especially prone to approaching Advent from the perspective of Christmas rather than the other way around. In other words, we often think that the point of Advent is to focus our gaze squarely on the event of Jesus’s arrival at Christmas. This is no doubt because so much of our lives are governed by the metaphors of progress and accumulation I have just mentioned. But it seems to me that the meaning of Advent requires us to have our gaze turned the other way around. Perhaps Christmas can only be Christmas if we can somehow unlearn what it is we think we know about it. This is what I mean to point to when I speak of the peculiarly Jewish character of Advent that Christians are all too wont to forget. It reminds us that we must unlearn the Jesus we think we know so that Jesus can come to us as messiah. We tend to forget that the season of Advent has as much to do with the second coming of Jesus as it does with his birth in Bethlehem. This is yet another symptom of how Christianity has abandoned the Jewish character of Advent. But without the Jewishness of Advent, we are left with a most unchristian conception of Christmas. So let us work to imagine Advent as a kind of self-emptying, a hollowing out so that we can become ready to receive the gift that Christmas has to give—the unexpected gift of a messiah who comes to save us from the temptation that we must somehow save ourselves. Amen.