Advent is the beginning of the church year. You might think it would make sense to start with the triumph and fanfare of Easter, or the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the Church at Pentecost.
But no, the church year begins with calamity.
It might seem like a fantastically inauspicious place to start, but in has its own logic. Because in the midst of chaos and skies falling, this is precisely where God’s grace is most clearly revealed.
God meets us not when things are ready and easy, but in the midst of trouble.
So the church year begins in the darkness right before the dawn.
It begins with the felt substance of our longing for God to enter into our world.
And this particular text was written during catastrophe.
This text was written in the late first century CE, right around the time of the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple. As with many peoples who are under the yoke of colonization and oppression, the Jewish people rose up to their Roman occupiers—and suffered a devastating defeat. Many were killed, and the Temple, the sacred core of their common life, was razed to the ground.
This sort of setting is precisely where we see apocalyptic writings like this rise up. When you witness this sort of destruction, one way to keep your heart strong beyond this crisis is to craft a new narrative where actually, this is what it looks like right before God shows up to be on your side and set everything right.
So to really hear this text, it helps to hear it with ears attuned to the place of this author—shock, desolation, and bewilderment.
When destructive forces seemed to be in control—and can we relate?—there was an ancient literary reaction that is apocalyptic literature—casting a vision for a future in which God’s power and glory breaks in, scattering the proud, righting all wrongs, wiping every tear away, and ushering in a new era of peace and goodness.
So if this text sounds strange and disconcerting, it’s because it was written during a disconcerting time. Yet the narrative it brings forth is one that is honest about how difficult present circumstances are, yet still draws forth a reason for hope out of that hardship.
This is why I love Advent: because it is gritty and tender and real and doesn’t sugar-coat or tell idealized stories about our lives. It rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer.
It is honest about how messed up things can be, but still says that God’s goodness and love will have the final word. It names the truth of our world as it is—breathtakingly beautiful and heart-breakingly broken. Yet God’s grace meets us right in the mess and chaos and whispers, “keep watch, take heart.”
Jesus does this strange sort of non-sequitur, where he is talking about the sun crashing down and the moon refusing to shine,
And then says, look at the fig tree. This sounds like a text about destruction and calamity, so what’s with this nice “here comes summer, that thing that happens every year”?
I hear this as Jesus telling a story that sounds like the world is falling apart. Yet he is assuring us that, even in the midst of that breakdown, there is still life churning forth. Even amid grief and fear, he is pointing to a reality under it all that is about cycles of regeneration and new life. Like, Jesus is saying, I’ll be real with you about how painful and awful the world can seem. But what I’m talking about, the deepest truth I need you to know, is actually about the persistence of life and love and green.”
Advent is a season where we sing songs of light even as the night deepens and lengthens. We sing that envy, strife, and quarrels may cease in the midst of aggressive divisions. Advent is a season of singing defiant hallelujahs, and stories of dogged hope.
The stories of Advent declare that our earthly lives and our human bodies are fundamentally good—good enough for God to dwell among us.
The stories of Advent declare that the greedy and violent will be toppled from their thrones, and the meek and the poor win out in the end.
The stories of Advent declare that unwed teenage mothers are some of the most powerful people in the world.
The stories of Advent declare that even in our times of deepest loneliness, God is with us, sitting in the rubble and gently turning our faces towards the light.
Our Advent theme this year is the first thing God speaks of, in the first lines of the book of Genesis.
God’s first words—“Let there be light”
God creates, and calls it good. Over and over, it is good.
good, good, very good.
This is the ground underneath it all.
But our world does not always feel that way, does it?
Our world can feel broken, twisted, and bleak sometimes.
We’re using chemical weapons we won’t use in our military on hungry and tired families.
I saw this series of articles this week that basically say, even our most conservative scientists are basically saying, “okay, you can freak out now about climate change” especially when now we see it might affect money.
And we have our private fears and griefs—health issues that don’t get better, new changes that never stop being hard, those days when the grief of a lost loved one strikes your heart so sharply it hurts.
And Advent doesn’t deny that brokenness.
Advent is a season that is candid with how screwed up things can be,
but does not dwell in despair.
Advent invites us onto an ancient, well-trod path that leads, unfailingly,
towards a light breaking into our world as reliably as the morning dawn.
As reliably as trees sprouting leaves again in the spring.
Even in deepest despair, when we can’t see our way forward,
God’s goodness breaks in like the one constant force in our universe—
The force of Light.
A favorite poem of mine, that hangs on my wall, is called “Light, at Thirty-Two” by Michael Blumenthal. It’s a poem about how much beauty is struck by light.
Have you ever noticed how something ugly or unremarkable can be transformed into something beautiful if the light catches it right?
A broken bottle can be trash, or a stained-glass window, when the light catches it.
A dun grassy field turns into an ocean of waving fire when the light catches it.
A gray ocean turns turquoise blue.
A face, as we say, is “lit up” with a smile.
Perhaps our hurting world can be beautiful too.
When the light catches it.
As the first poet spoke, in that book of poems that opens our scriptures,
“Let there be light.”