No matter how long I spent at seminary or looking at calendars and lectionaries Advent always takes me by surprise. Not the kind of surprise where I didn’t expect it…I mean, the holiday decorations have been up since 12 minutes past Halloween. The kind of surprise I feel is the mood.
Every year, I anticipate the season of anticipation – preparing for Christmas, celebrating the coming of the Christ child, being awestruck by the incarnation. And every year the first Sunday in Advent comes and what we get is…
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. (Luke 21:25)
Because Advent isn’t just anticipation of the coming that already happened in Jesus, it is also anticipating the coming again.
I don’t think it is an accident that I’ve suppressed this memory of what Advent is about. If you look around, I am clearly not the only one. More people are decorating their trees than worrying about the powers of the heavens being shaken. Those of us who are Christian are usually more focused on the manger than “people fainting from fear and foreboding.” (Luke 21: 26) As much as our faith is about that coming again, it is an intimidating concept – the visions we get from Scripture are dramatic and violent, frightening and mystical. It is much easier to anticipate Christmas because we have stories about it and we live in its aftermath. The celebrations we have built up around it are so comforting!
During Advent, most of us are looking for memories not prophecies.
And yet, here we are.
Jesus tells his disciples…”Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21: 28)
No matter how intimidating the signs, raise your heads.
Recently, I had an experience that made me think a little differently about the coming and the second coming, about Advent. Last weekend I was visiting friends in New York. We were deciding what to do with our Saturday when I mentioned I’d never been to Brooklyn. So we decided to go there – but instead of taking the subway we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge, as you may know, connects lower Manhattan (the emblem of American Capitalism) to Brooklyn (the capital of American Hipsterism) and is anchored by two enormous stone towers. The pedestrian way is crowded in both directions with walkers and cyclists. Thick cables stretch from road to tower and back again, holding the whole thing above the East River. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is like getting a snap shot of humanity – especially on a holiday weekend. There were people from all over the world on that bridge going in both directions. All ages, all genders, all beard styles. There were businesses set up along the route selling magnets, key rings, and Statue of Liberty hats – at one point on the walk you can see Lady Liberty in the distance.
At first, it is easy to get caught up in the crowd, making sure you keep pace, don’t block the bicycles. Then you start looking ahead to see if you’ve made progress – how far are you from the Manhattan side? Is Brooklyn any closer? About half way there is a frenzy of selfie taking and you really have to watch out or you’ll cause a pedestrian traffic accident!
At some point during the second half of the walk I noticed locks attached to the cables. They were all different colors so they couldn’t be “official.” Without breaking stride, I reached out to handle one. It was etched with two names and a heart. The next one was, too. These were Love Locks.
Since that trip across the bridge I’ve found out that Love Locks are a “thing.” But I didn’t know it at the time, they took me by surprise. The idea is that you attach the lock to the bridge, then throw the key into the river as a sign of your undying love for your partner. It seems like a really sweet way to proclaim your love for someone that is both unique (each lock was different) and communal (they were all locks on a bridge.)
The idea of those Love Locks stuck with me after I reached the other side of the bridge and for the rest of the day. Actually, more than a day. I’ve thought about them all week and especially as I was mulling over the lessons for the first Sunday of Advent.
I think Advent is a bit like that trip across the bridge. The journey between Christmas (the first coming) and the time when we will stand before the Son of Man (the second coming) is one we make with all of humanity. It is a spiritual journey.
And as much as we are slogging our way toward our destination, there are a lot of distractions on the path. You can worry about how the cables are holding it all up or be tempted by the tiny NY taxi toys. You can worry about how close you are to the beginning or the end. You can forget where you started and where you are going. You can get distracted by how many people are there and which ones are making your journey more difficult.
The distractions on the Brooklyn Bridge are a lot like the ones we face every day, including the days of Advent.
Jesus tells his disciples – and tells us - “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” (Luke 21: 34)
I read a wonderful advent reflection that compares the distractions of modern life to the dissipation and drunkenness and worries Jesus warns us about. In his reflection, Randall Curtis writes,
In a world that is filled more and more every day with tempting distractions, like cell phones, tech gifts, and pop up advertisements everywhere, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to consume the newest trend…These distractions are the new “drunkenness and worries of this life,” which means that as we prepare for Christmas and God breaking into the world, we will have to make sure we look up from our phones to see it.”*
Yet, sometimes among those distractions we find reminders of why we are on that path, where the journey started and where it is headed. We see things like Love Locks – evidence that among the confusion of life there is love. Among the crowds that are blocking your way are people made in God’s image on the journey with you.
Our Advent journey will be cluttered with all kinds of distractions. Shopping lists and deadlines, family feuds and travel arrangements. Work parties, neighborhood parties, holiday dinners and special menus. Being left off invitation lists, missing those who’ve died this year.
Among all that craziness, raise your heads. Among those distractions are signs of love and reminders of our journey toward God. And God’s journey to us.
Look for the Love Locks on this path. Look for the reminders that we are on this journey because God loves us and sent his Son to us.
Look for the signs that we share God’s love with each other – those we know well and make public commitments to…and those we hardly know, but share the journey with.
On the first Sunday of Advent, along with the head-raising warning that the kingdom of God is at hand, we have this prayer from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. It’s a good reminder and summary of the meaning of oru Advent journey:
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (Thessalonians 3:10-13)
*from Living Well Through Advent 2018: practicing generosity with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, Scott Stoner