For Reflection: This week Gill reflects on the endings and beginnings that mark our Advent journey.
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The First Sunday of Advent is one of the most important Sundays in the Church year- it is the beginning of a new year in the church. Today the cycle of liturgical feasts, fasts, and gospel readings begins anew.
So why do we begin this season hearing a gospel about an ending – and not just any old ending. According to St. Mark, Jesus says,
‘In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’
It sounds like we are being plunged into the darkness of the end of the world, the grand finale. That’s certainly how many have heard this gospel story. For most of us, I suspect, this vision about the end of life on this planet leaves us with feelings of fear and anxiety – rather than comfort and joy -we don’t want to dwell on the it.
So why does the First Sunday of Advent plunge us into darkness?
The context for today’s gospel is important. Jesus and his disciples have just left the temple. In Jesus’ day the temple was the centre of Jewish life and identity. It gave the people meaning and direction. One of the disciples, clearly impressed and influenced by the temple, remarked, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” “Not one stone,” Jesus says to him, “will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:1-2).
Today’s gospel concludes Jesus’ teaching in response to that disciple’s remark and the other disciples’ questions of when this will happen and what the signs of its happening will be (Mk. 13:4). Jesus is telling them that the story of their life and identity is changing and will be replaced with another. He’s telling them that they will need to let go of their old view of life, the world, themselves, even of God. They will have to let go of their temple story. Jesus is telling them and us something important about the beginnings and endings – that they are two sides or perspectives of the same event, recognizable moments of growth and transformation, that some endings are necessary to create space for a new beginning.
Each of us comes to this day with all sorts of stories and experiences - stories and experiences that have defined us, shaped who we are, given meaning and direction to our lives, and have been the motives and drivers for what we do, how we think, and the ways we relate to others. They are the stories that shape our view of the world, ourselves, others, and God. They are powerful stories that give structure to our lives and upon which we have built; stories that may have restricted or diminished our sense of who we are – that have influenced the choices we have made – how we relate to others – stories that have plunged us into the dark – We could call them our temple stories -stories that need an ending in order to create space for new beginnings.
Perhaps that’s why the new church year and this Season of Advent begin with a story about an ending. Today’s gospel shakes us awake to look beyond temple stories - it challenges us to wake up and face the necessary endings in our lives in order to make space for new beginnings – it invites us to watch for the one who is always coming. That is the gift and good news of this First Sunday of Advent. For every temple story has a necessary ending. It is the coming of Christ into the midst of our muddle and mess to align our world to God’s story. His coming is the beginning of our new life and a new life story. But we can neither live his life nor tell his story as long as we cling to our temple stories.
The current pandemic has rocked the very foundation of our temple stories, we may well feel like we are living ‘in those days’ - waiting between the ending of how we used to live and the beginning of something new. And whilst we live in hope of a vaccine - saving Christmas – being able to do Christmas as we usually do – has become a national priority. However, as a former colleague of mine said recently – the vaccine is not the Messiah. The pandemic has revealed fractures, vulnerabilities and poverty in our society that have been created by our temple stories that will not be healed by a vaccine. Perhaps Advent and Christmas 2020 can be the year when we do Advent and Christmas differently and look beyond our temple stories to spread the good news of Christmas.
So, what are the temple stories you carry within you? What stories have been foundational for you but no longer give you a safe or life-giving place to stand? And what stories that we carry as a community and as a nation that need a necessary ending? The challenge of today’s gospel and this First Sunday of Advent is whether we are willing to discover, face and accept the necessary ending of these temple stories and make space for God’s story to flourish?
This day, however, is not just about challenge. It also offers an assurance and a promise, the assurance that it is safe to let go of our temple stories and the promise that this is not the end but the context for a new beginning. The entire season of Advent echoes with challenge, assurance, and promise. We hear it in John the Baptist’s words, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” we hear it in the messages of the Angles and we see it in Mary, the one who will be inhabited by a new life and a new story, who will give human flesh and blood to that life and story. I’ve come to believe that what we do on the First Sunday of Advent, will, in large part, set the tone and context for how we will experience and engage the coming of Christ throughout the rest of the church year. So, keep awake. Watch. Look deep into your life for your temple stories. Name them, tell them, and let them go.
This is not easy work. But maybe this year of the pandemic we can be a bit more awake to our temple stories than we were last year. Maybe this year we can create a bit more space for a new story than we did last year. Maybe this year we can be a bit more trusting of the darkness and the necessary endings of our temple stories than we were last year.
This is our Advent work, our preparation for the coming of Christ, the One who called himself the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.
Questions for reflection
- As we enter the season of endings and beginnings are there temple stories that have been foundational to your life that need to be let go of in order to make space for God’s story?
- What can you do this Advent to make space for reflecting on the coming of Christ?
- What have we learned during the pandemic about the needs of others and what might we do in response?