Wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago that it was hot and sticky and we were on our way back from Jerusalem?
Advent has come on very suddenly this year, or so it seems to me. The days get shorter, the sky seems gloomy and blue most of the day, and the sun sets much too early.
And it is more than that: I am once again searching for the meaning of Advent. Yes, I know, it is the season before Christmas, the time of expectant waiting for the Light of Christ to come into the world, the time before the dawn. I know all that.
But can’t we just we skip past all that, light the tree, have few angels and wise men, and open a few presents?
And what to make of the very starchy readings we get in the Daily Office lectionary?
Take, for example, the prophet Amos who this week is calling down wrath upon Israel for worshipping false idols and ignoring the poor (Amos 5:8-9):
“The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.”Then we have Jesus, who is in full-throated scold mode today, telling the parable of the king who throws a wedding party and the guests don’t show up (Matthew 22:1-14). So the king invites people off the streets, and then gets angry all over again when one of the street-people is dressed wrong. The king orders the badly dressed guest to be bound hand and foot and “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What does any of this have to do with Advent and the bright lights of Christmas on the horizon?
It occurs to me that Advent is a Holy Saturday season, but stick with me a bit so I can explain this.
Holy Saturday is the day after the crucifixion (Good Friday), and the day before the Resurrection (Easter). Holy Saturday is the in-between-time of expectation of dwelling in the emptiness of the desert. Holy Saturday is that moment when Jesus goes to find people living in the darkness, even dwelling in Hell itself, so he can bring them with him into the light of Resurrection and Easter.
That is exactly what Advent is about. It also makes Advent very different than Lent.
To get to Christmas, we have to go to the emptiness of the desert and the emptiness of our souls.
Mark 1:1-8, where John the Baptist stands in the desert and “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” (Mark 1:5)
The throngs come hoping to have an experience of God in the middle nowhere, in the place of desolation. They go to the desert to find the “the one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night.”
If we can get past the wrath and scolding of the readings this week, we might hear these ancient people reminding us to look for the blessings in the empty places – in the deserts where we might dwell. That is hard stuff, especially if you are lonely or dwelling in a personal darkness.
Yet even in the darkness of Advent, there God dwells, and that is what John the Baptist tells people when they find him: Look around (“repent”), God has been with you all along, wake up and see.
That is a message of hope.
Advent is an in-between time in the desert, and also a time to wake up and see the blessings right in front of us. It is a time to look for the blessings especially in times when it is hardest to see. Maybe start with the simple things. This morning I looked out at the Ragged Mountain range to see the bright light of dawn dancing on the tree tops. That was an amazing blessing, a gift for the eyes that will never look quite like that again.
I am convinced that the parable Jesus tells today in Matthew 22:1-14 fits in Advent because it is a Holy Saturday story. Again, stick with me for a few moments on this. Some interpretations render the King of the story into a metaphor for God, and the point of the story becomes about metaphorically wearing the right clothes when encountering God. Be ready, and that is certainly a good message for the season.
But what if the King in the parable is not a metaphor at all? What if the king is a selfish worldly king? And what if you don’t have the right clothes?
And go another step. Who is the badly dressed guest thrown out of the party and into the darkness?
What if the badly dressed wedding guest is Jesus himself, cast into the darkness before the dawn where he might find those who are lonely, hurting, and not fitting into the edicts of the worldly kings or wearing the right clothes? What if this is another story of Holy Saturday, when Jesus goes to find people living in the darkness, even dwelling in Hell itself, so he can bring them with him into the light of Resurrection and Easter?
Wake up, look around. The blessing is right in front of you.
Maybe the prophet Amos has it exactly right:
“The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name.”
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Photographs: The Pleiades star cluster, photograph by NASA; Mono Lake in the Mojave Desert of California, photograph copyright by Gary Hart.