Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 29, 2015
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Well, here we are this morning, at both the beginning of a new Church year and our first liturgy together as a brand new congregation. I can’t speak for you, but for me, the First Sunday of Advent has always been my personal “New Year’s Day.” And it is even more so this year because today, our formerly two parishes are now (finally) one.
Now, in the bad-old-days of political incorrectness, when we marked recorded history with the designations “B.C.” or “Before Christ” and “Anno Domino” or “In the Year of Our Lord,” this First Sunday of Advent would have been the first day of the two-thousand and sixteenth “Year of our Lord.” And while Jews and Muslims—our sisters and brothers in the Abrahamic faith—still proudly keep their own religious calendars and mark their years according to their own reckoning, we “thoroughly modern” Christians have foresworn our legacy and now carefully avoid offense with the bland designation “CE” for the “Common Era.” And perhaps, after centuries of anti-Judaism, Eurocentrism, and Christian supersessionism, we Christians are right to observe this small courtesy toward our Jewish and Muslim neighbors and fellow believers in the one “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” Blessed be He—especially in these fraught times.
Our Gospel this morning, however, is still very clear about one thing by any name: That all the ages belong to God, no matter how we choose to reckon them. And for Christians, the Incarnation of the “Son of God” in Jesus of Nazareth, and his “Second Coming” at the end of the ages, are precise moments and the defining events in human history. Today, we tell the world—and remind ourselves—that we are not simply followers of some eternal “truth” enshrined in another pious myth of “eternal return.” We will shortly affirm—as we do every Sunday in the Nicene Creed—that the eternal “Word” of God actually and scandalously took on human flesh and nature at a particular moment in human history in a real human being. He did this to bring to fulfillment God’s unfolding purposes for our redemption from the power of sin and death, together with our individual and collective salvation.
Today, we boldly affirm—all evidence, sometimes, to the contrary—that Creation and human history have meaning and purpose; a definitive beginning and a clear ending in God. History is not just “the same damn thing over and over again,” or a “nightmare from which we are trying to awaken”; rather, in the words of the greatest Jewish philosopher of our time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, history is “the circuitous path for the footsteps of the Messiah.” Today, we Christians assert that the Messiah has come in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and that he will come again as the “Son of Man” at the end of time. In both the “Little Apocalypse” from the Gospel according to Saint Mark, and again this morning in the much longer apocalypse from Saint Luke’s Gospel—we Christians claim today that this Jesus of Nazareth has already inaugurated the “kingdom of God,” and that we are already living in the biblical “end of days.” With the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our “lonely exile” is over and God in Christ is doing a spectacular “new thing.” Moreover, we assert that in the “fullness of time,” this Messiah Jesus will return as Lord of all worlds and of all time to hand the perfected “kingdom” to the Father, when “God will be all in all.” Until then, we wait and watch as alert “prisoners of hope” in the “already, but not yet.”
And in this meanwhile, “eternity” is now; the “kingdom of God” is already among us; and the “resurrection of the dead” is the new life in Christ, until we become by grace what Jesus the Christ is by nature: “children of God and heirs of everlasting life.” We believe this so thoroughly and ardently that we are about to make our great, annual fuss over the nativity of this Messiah Jesus in just a few short weeks. Even our gift-giving—at its best, I hasten to add—will be an expression of our thanks for God’s gift of God’s very self to us in Jesus of Nazareth. They are human acts of grace and mercy in recognition and imitation of the ultimate divine act of grace and mercy in the birth of the Messiah.
Advent and Christmastide, however, are not just about the distant past and the undisclosed future; they are also very much about the present, the eternal now. If, as Pope Francis warned at his General Audience last week, Advent and Christmas are to be more than a “charade” this year in a world filled with terror and hatred, God in Christ is seeking a place right now in an unfinished Creation and in our divided hearts. This divine yearning for the Creation and for our hearts is so great that God invites us to find God in every circumstance of this passing life. God in Christ summons us to meet him in our challenges and our suffering, as well as in our triumphs and our joys. If we have eyes to see him, ears to hear him, and hearts to love him, we will meet him everywhere and in all sorts and conditions. And, as I’m sure you know, this is no easy task, especially in the midst of our suffering, our losses, our disappointments, and our brokenness in this time of war and terror. Advent is a time for deep looking and patient waiting through prayer and introspection. It’s a time for sifting and discerning with the awareness that God in Christ is already here at the center of our hearts and of our world, waiting for us just as eagerly as we seek after him.
But we will need to swim against the secular tide of the season—with all of its clamor and grasping, its mad rush and consumption—to hear that “still small voice” and to see that the wayside “bush of thorns” in the wilderness is on fire. As the great German mystic of the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, expressed it—and as I am so fond of repeating—“God is always at home; it is we who have sometimes gone out for a walk.” These next twenty-five days of Advent are God’s invitation to us and to our world to “come home” and to find God, who is already present and active at the center of our being, and who is searching for you and for me with all of the passion and zeal of a “lover of souls” (BCP).
Until recently, the liturgical season of Advent was observed in the western Church as a penitential season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, and it still is kept in this manner by the Eastern Orthodox churches. Like Lent, it is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation for the great feast of welcoming the Lord into our world and into our hearts anew at Christmas, the “winter psacha.” And if we take a “time out” from the mad rush, and listen very carefully to the prayers and the readings of the season, we will still hear that penitential note in our western Church liturgy. It’s the reason that the Church prays the Great Litany—as we did this morning—on the first Sunday of Advent and Lent. Advent is a special time of waiting and longing in the cold and the darkness for the Light and Life and Spirit of the world. It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves the ultimate questions: What am I waiting for? And how is my wait? It is also a time for alertness and longing for the coming “kingdom of God” and the birth of the Messiah into the “new Jerusalem” of our hearts at ever deeper levels of awareness and in special acts of love. It’s a season for what Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav called “the outpouring of the soul before God.”
So, why not give it a try this Advent by setting aside some time each day between now and Christmas—here or at home—to listen for the voice of the Messiah amidst the great din and clamor of our very dangerous world? Read Holy Scripture; pray the psalms; pour out your hopes and fears for the coming year; or just sit in silent expectation and gratitude for the presence and action of God within you. Then, when we come together here on the great feast of Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Messiah in our festival liturgy, our worship will truly be so much more than a mere “charade” amidst hatred and violence. I guarantee that you will meet anew, in some unanticipated way, the Christ of the present, as well as the Lord of the past and of the future. For, as the great, contemporary Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “If the “kingdom of God” is not right here and right now, then you will not find it anywhere else.”
So what are you waiting for, and how is your wait during this Advent of 2015 in the year of our Lord—AD or CE?