During this brief season we live in at least three dimensions: the calendar days leading up to Christmas, the period of waiting from the announcement of the coming of the Messiah up to his birth, and the on-going period lasting from his ascension through his coming again, in which we continue to wait. We await Christmas; we await Christ’s first coming; we await Christ’s coming again.
The readings for this First Sunday in Advent emphasize the latter, looking forward to the day that the Kingdom is fully established, when war and pain no longer exist. The also remind us that we will not know when that will be and tell us how to remain prepared.
Isaiah speaks of the establishment of God’s dwelling, or Temple, on the highest of mountains, above all else. The nations will all come to it willingly, and all of them will long to walk in God’s ways. God’s instruction will issue from his house, and at its behest, war and all implements and ideas of war will cease to exist. We will all then be walking and living in God’s light.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is a reminder to Jesus’ followers that we do not know when Christ in coming again. Because we cannot know what time it is, relative to this great event, we must stay awake constantly and keep prepared by laying aside “the works of darkness” and putting on “the armor of light.” Covenant living, clean and honorable, should begin now and stay constant.
Matthew also emphasizes the unknown day of Christ’s appearing and the consequent need to “keep awake.” He uses a number of illustrative examples of ready and unready people, beginning with Noah and the flood, extending to contemporary everyday workers, and including a general example about how homeowners are unaware of when thieves will come. This is one instance of the “thief in the night” image of Christ’s return. Although it may seem a dark image, it does capture the unseen and unknown aspect of Christ’s return and the consequent demand that makes of us to be always ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Rather that focusing on the apocalyptic aspect of these readings, which can easily tilt over into “rapture” like ideas, I think it is more helpful for most of us to use these readings as a spur to remember the uncertainty of our lives on earth and the necessity this puts upon us to be as vigilant as possible in living our lives fully and completely in the light of Christ’s love.
We don’t have time to waste on anger and hatred, on plots of defeat or revenge against those we see as enemies. The works of darkness in our minds and souls suck the life out of us. Living in the light, working as best we are able to aid the coming kingdom by loving others, serving the poor, tending the sick—these are the ways we put on the armor of lights.
After a year of raging darkness and waging personal battles in the political arena in our country, my prayer is that this Advent season can be for us a time of stepping into the light and looking forward to the new life God holds in store for us.