I don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure, but when I do, I usually gravitate towards mysteries. I love the way skilled mystery writers can weave together a complex plot involving a whole cast of characters, somehow leaving us hanging at the end of each chapter, eager for more. The situations the detectives find themselves in are always so complicated – there are numerous suspects with possible motives and pieces of evidence that don’t seem to fit, and we’re wondering how this tangled situation will ever be resolved. But, invariably, in the final pages the truth comes out, the villain makes a fatal mistake, a key piece of evidence comes to light, or the detective has a brilliant flash of insight, and the whole complex situation finds resolution. 95% of the book is spent weaving the complicated plot, and the last 5% is spent resolving and explaining the mystery.
Most of the time I find these kinds of stories satisfying. (I do like a tidy ending!) But at times the ending feels too neat and I think to myself, ‘that’s not how life works.’ Situations in life that are as tangled as this don’t resolve themselves quite this conveniently, most of the time.
If someone came up to you and called you a sheep, I would imagine you’d take it as an insult rather than a compliment. In our day, referring to people as sheep or sheeple, is to call down a whole host of insulting imagery. The idea of sheep following blindly, obedient to a fault, unable to think or act for themselves, is hardly suited to our society’s notions of informed decision making, questioning of authority, and devotion to personal autonomy. But neither of these ways of being in their exaggerated forms are appropriate for the people of God.
It’s true that sheep are popularly considered rather stupid animals. Perhaps it’s not so much that they’re stupid but that they get so fixated on one thing that they need a bit of prodding to move them along. Corporately, sheep will graze a pasture all the way down to the roots, destroying the very grass they depend on, and so the shepherd must constantly move the flock from one pasture to another in order to be able to return again when the grass is renewed. Individually, a sheep may wander from the flock because of a tempting stream, or the promise of greener grass on the other side. But alone, sheep are helpless against predators, liable to get tangled in the bushes they seem so attracted to, and even if they do manage to survive for a while, without shearing, their fleece will eventually weigh them down so much that it will almost certainly lead to disease and death.
We have been ushered into the season of Advent with the customary apocalyptic readings. Gazing not at Christ’s first coming in our midst but straining toward the horizon for his second coming we enter into this season of preparation. But, Advent preparation is not just about planning a party towards the end of December. The expectant waiting and preparation of Advent is time to do the soul’s work of conditioning for ultimate things, because eternity is on the horizon.
Jesus occasionally entered into a mode of teaching that, unlike other uplifting passages, embodies a foreboding sense of coming trial. Indeed, we have such a reading today. Jesus points to a day when there will be an accounting; when the souls of humankind will be laid bare and truth will be made known.
If I let myself actually hear Jesus, I tremble. I know that God’s mercy and grace are aboundingly sufficient and I know that there are some things, some ways of being, some little pet sins of mine that simply cannot endure in the Kingdom of God. But I know how much I depend on them when I try to let them go.
Listen in on two seasonal podcast episodes, as Br. Curtis Almquist joins Steve Macchia on the Discerning Leader Podcast, to discuss how Advent can allow us to get in touch with our deepest longings and prepare our hearts for the coming to Christ into this world.
“Advent invites us to slow down and create space in order to receive Christ in the fullness of our being.” – Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Discerning God during the season of Advent takes prayerful intentionality, especially with the onslaught of alluring messages from our over-commercialized world. It’s the beginning of the church year, where we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ in his physical nativity, in our own hearts, and in his future second coming. It’s also a time of disciplined fasting and abstinence, a time to ponder and pray, which helps us to get in touch with our deepest longings as we prepare our hearts for the prophetic and mysterious coming of Christ into this world.
“Learning the value of waiting has largely been removed from our vocabulary. Advent gives us the gift of waiting.” –Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Advent is a season of anticipation. A time of preparation for the Christian community. The promised Messiah is coming in Jesus and the Church remembers once more. With a penitential quality to the season, Advent is a solemn time to pay attention to what is standing in the way of our walking in the way. It’s a time for personal reflection in our prayer closet where stillness and silence are our teacher. It’s a season of noticing those around us who are lost and lonely, reaching out to those who fear being forgotten. It’s a time to practice presence and gratitude.
It is curious that we begin a new season today, the First Sunday of the Advent season. Outside the walls of this monastery chapel, a new season began just after Halloween, called “Holiday Shopping Season,” along with the Amazon promise that you can have it all now… at least by tomorrow. The season of Advent interposes quite an opposite theme. Anticipating Christmas is not about immediacy. Rather, it is about watching, and waiting, and preparing to celebrate Christ’s infant birth at Bethlehem, and to prepare for Christ’s promise that he will come again in real time. In Advent, you will see no holiday glitter here in this chapel. What catches our eye’s attention is the Advent wreath, front and center, on which we slowly light candles. In the Hebrew scriptures, the promised Messiah teems with the language of light. The Messiah is called “the Dayspring,” “the Morning Star,” “the Sun of Righteousness,” “the Light of the World.”
And don’t we need light, especially as we approach the winter solstice? Meanwhile, there’s more and more darkness outside. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th probably has to do with light. The earliest Christians most likely wanted the date of Christmas to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[i] This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky: December 25th.[ii] And so light has historically figured very importantly into this Advent season preparing for the coming and coming again of Christ: light. Light in the sky and light in our souls.
The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.
I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.
And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.
The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.
Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.
We all know the feeling of waiting for that one guy who is always late. That feeling of quiet anger rising as the whole room waits for him to arrive so that the meeting can start. You try to be patient, you try some small talk, but soon the frustrating thoughts creep in… he always does this, God is he clueless, someone should say something to him. The moments drag by…then finally the tardy man arrives two minutes late, holding tea and toast.
St. Paul encourages us tonight to regard others as better than ourselves. Now please keep in mind St. Paul didn’t write these words on his honeymoon. He wrote these words in jail, locked up because he was a Christian. So even in chains he asks us to consider others as better than ourselves…that includes Mr. Tea and Toast.
Why would St. Paul write such a thing? Why not write something like follow the spirit of Christ and always arrive five minutes early so no has to wait for you? The genius of St. Paul was his vision for the long haul. He knew that having the patience to regard others as more important is a short term pain for a long term gain. In other words, patience is a good strategy.
Isaiah 11:1-10 :: Romans 12:4-13 :: Matthew 3:1-12
As the years go by, I find myself more and more aware of a peculiar dissonance. Before the leftovers of our Thanksgiving Day feasts have even cooled, our culture plunges into a season of marked material excess. Commercial advertisements don the gay apparel of remixed, upbeat holiday jingles. Tinsel and lights adorn city streets and public squares. Numberless holiday sales abound, drawing us into a frenzy of stressful shopping, trailed shortly after by the accompanying waste. All attended by the familiar, portly figure of a jolly Santa Claus.
Please don’t misunderstand me; it is not my attempt here to polemicize the popular festivities of our ambient culture. (Not entirely.) There is nothing wrong with the desire to give gifts to one another, per se. There is nothing wrong with warming the dark, frigid nights of a northern December with song, festivities, fellowship, and lights, per se. These are all good things, to be sure, and doubtless God can speak some word of life to us through it all. Nevertheless, the moment our culture attaches the name of Jesus Christ to this prolonged cultural season of excess, I have to wonder if we are really being adequately prepared for the significance of Christmas. The difference of horizon between a season marked by Santa Claus and one marked (at least in part) by John the Baptist, it is safe to say, is a difference not of quality but of kind.
Advent is by contrast a full-blooded, lean, and demanding season in the life of the church. A season characterized by expectant waiting and honest self-examination. A season that seeks to prepare us for a revolution, but not just any revolution. Today and next Sunday are marked by the unmistakable cry of John the Baptist—the gaunt, desert-dwelling prophet, clad in a camel’s hair mantle and a lone leather belt.