Today we begin a new season, and a new year, at church!
Does anyone know this season’s name? …
Let’s look at the whole year together… will somebody help me hold up the year? …
It begins with Advent, this blue part here.
After blue Advent comes white Christmas –
then green Epiphany –
then purple Lent –
then white Easter –
then red Pentecost – careful, it’s hot! –
then the long green season of summer and fall, the great green growing season.
What happens when the green growing season ends?
Yes – we start again!
Can we connect the end to the beginning?
Because sometimes Time is a line, but sometimes Time is also a circle, right?
Every end is a beginning, every beginning is also an end…
There is our circle of the church year!
And today we begin a new church year.
Thank helpers and dismiss them.
Advent is a season of expectation and preparation.
It is the season when we get ready for the mystery of Christmas, when God came to earth as a tiny baby.
But we are not just expecting Christmas.
We are expecting a time when God will come into the world again, to turn everything upside down and right side up.
In the chapter after our Isaiah reading today, God says through the prophet, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
People have been waiting for that new earth for a long time.
We hear the yearning in several of our Scripture readings today:
Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Restore us, O God of hosts!
Stir up your strength and come to help us!
God’s people have prayed these words and others like them through many lesser apocalypses and catastrophes – conquest; exile; famine and flood; the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70, which was so traumatic for the first generation of Christians, and which seems to be part of what Jesus is speaking about here.
God’s people have experienced God’s saving help through many lesser restorations, too. Have moved through survival into hope, growth, renewal. But we still wait for the ultimate transformation and renewal of our lives and our world.
Advent is always a good time to revisit the word apocalypse.
In common use, it has come to mean either “the complete final destruction of the world,” or “an event involving destruction or damage on a… catastrophic scale.”
That usage of the word comes from the Bible – from the book we know as Revelations, or the Revelation of John.
That word revelation is a translation of the Greek word apocalypse – which is the first word of the book. It actually means revealing or uncovering. In the terminology of Biblical studies, the end or final transformation of the world has a different name: the Eschaton. And an apocalypse is a text that talks about the signs that will tell us when the Eschaton is coming.
Today’s Gospel, for example, contains a little apocalypse, as Jesus tells his disciples how to watch for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.
But the word apocalypse came to be understood to mean the end of the world, because the Book of Revelation – also known as the Apocalypse of John – describes that end so vividly.
So there’s a significant gap between scholarly and everyday language, here.
But there is also a lot of overlap between how the Bible talks about the eschaton, God’s final and ultimate intervention in the world, and how our contemporary culture thinks and talks and make movies and TV shows about the apocalypse.
One aspect of that overlap is, of course, fear. When whatever is coming, comes: what will it cost us? What will we lose? What, and who, will survive? These are frightening words and images, whether we’re talking about Scripture or about the latest word from climate scientists.
Another aspect of that overlap is, well, revelation. Uncovering and clarifying what aspects of the present may be catapulting us towards doom. Laurel Dykstra writes for the Wild Advent lectionary commentary, “Rather than predicting the future the prophetic tradition points to the consequences of our current actions. [Old Testament scholar] Walter Brueggemann famously defines the role of the prophet [as] to radically critique the existing order, to feel and express the pain that would otherwise keep us numb and immobilized, and energize us with imagination and hope for an alternative.”
I suspect many of us have occasional moments when we suddenly see clearly some of the critical flaws of our shared way of life – the overconsumption; the lack of commitment to communal well-being; the overwhelm that keeps us too numb to undertake big change.
The barrage of Black Friday deals in my inbox last week were a good example.
And another aspect of the overlap between Biblical and cultural apocalypse is a need to stay alert, to pay attention.
To read the signs, and be ready to take action.
I’m not an expert in apocalyptic fiction but it seems to me that there’s often a character or a few characters who are the ones who catch on early, who connect the dots: Something big is happening. This isn’t just an ordinary Tuesday.
In our Gospel today Jesus is basically telling his friends to be those people. Beware! Stay alert! Read the signs of the times!
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!
Keep awake! It’s a theme of this Gospel and, arguably, a core theme of Advent. It comes up in our lectionary texts, and some of our Advent hymns too. Get ready; God’s coming! Prepare the way! You don’t want to be found asleep!
What I notice this year, entering Advent, is a real sense of tension between this Advent admonition to wakefulness, and the demands of constant vigilance in our culture today.
We don’t really need to be told to stay awake and pay attention.
We live with weekly and sometimes daily signs of unfolding climate catastrophe. (Dykstra points out that our vocabulary for human-wrought impact on earth’s climate has moved in the past decade from “climate change” through climate crisis, climate emergency, climate catastrophe, and some are now using the term “climate apocalypse.”)
Wars in Ukraine, in Gaza, strain our communities, our friendships, our capacity for compassion.
Polarization and violence in word and deed in our public life wear us down, erode our hope and our courage.
We got an email from my daughter’s middle school a couple of weeks ago with the subject line: “Lockdown drill and book fair.” Now, it’s not surprised that both of those things were happening, but something about tossing them together in one email to parents felt like a next step in making routine the regime of fear and anxiety we have all accepted, or that our leaders have accepted on our behalf.
I don’t think sleep is our problem.
If anything, we are paying too much attention to too many things.
We are overwhelmed and numb.
Our nervous systems never get to settle down.
“Stay alert!” is not helpful or kind advice for the 21st century American. It’s redundant, in any case, with every ad for a home security system or video doorbell that our streaming services serve up.
Maybe what we actually need is more quiet. More rest.
Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry and author of the book Rest is Resistance, is an evangelist for the importance of rest, as a generative place to dream, become more aligned with yourself and resist the productivity demands of our capitalist culture. Her work is grounded in black liberation and womanist theologies. She writes, “My rest as a Black woman in America suffering from generational exhaustion and racial trauma always was a political refusal and social justice uprising within my body. I took to rest and naps and slowing down as a way to save my life, resist the systems telling me to do more, and most importantly as a remembrance to my Ancestors who had their [rest and dreams] stolen from them… Rest pushes back and disrupts a system that views human bodies as a tool for production and labor. It is a counter narrative. We know that we are not machines. We are divine.”
(More here: https://news.emory.edu/features/2023/07/emag-power-of-naps-13-07-23/index.html)
Another African-American woman, poet Cole Arthur Riley, often bears witness to the importance of rest in her ministry on Instagram. She writes, for example, “Work is not the salvation you think it is. If you want to get free, exhaustion is not the way. Rest. Go slow. How will you stay near to yourself today?”
Hersey, Riley, and others name that rest is radical and essential. We need it to step back from everything that overwhelms and exhausts us, and makes it hard to know or focus on what really matters. Rest can take many forms – an actual nap; making a cup of tea and reading something you enjoy (regardless of literary merit!); taking time to cook something from scratch, in an unhurried way – maybe put on some music while you measure and stir; have a agenda-free conversation with a loved one; go for a walk or sit by a window and notice the world…
Why am I preaching REST when Jesus is telling us to KEEP AWAKE? Aren’t those opposites? Maybe not.
This is something I am learning through the Clergy Contemplative Renewal program that I started in July.
I am discovering that there’s a quality of alertness, a way of being awake to the world, that is very different from being available to the overwhelm and the barrage of images and information, from being targeted by ads and trapped by doomscrolling.
I am a long, long way from having mastered that other quality of alertness. But I know that it exists, now, and that’s a big step.
Since the program began with a retreat in July I’ve been experimenting with microdoses of slow – of quiet – of still.
And what I am learning – at the 101 level of contemplative practice, here! – is that replacing five minutes of reading the news with five minutes of sitting in silence, in the morning, does not make me less aware of the world. It makes me differently aware.
On a good day, it makes me better able to discern where to spend my attention and energy, in alignment with my hopes and intentions.
If sitting in silence isn’t your jam – tuning in to nature does something similar inside of us. Dyksta’s ecological commentary on today’s Gospel calls our attention to Jesus’ advice: From the fig tree learn its lesson… She writes: “These words… are a clear directive that part of the work of Advent is a deep attention to the more than human world… The skills of observing tracking, noticing weather changes, seasonal changes are Advent practices that are also spiritual practices and skills. That deep attention and noticing is a kind of prayer. Can your community take on an Advent practice of noticing together? What plants stay green all year? What are the plant species that make up your advent wreath? Do you know their names? Do you recognize them as kin and neighbor? Which are native and which are introduced? How are humans in relationship with these?
Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, credited with galvanizing the modern environmental movement, is rooted in just this kind of attention – this staying awake. Carson writes “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
It is easy for us in Wisconsin (and perhaps also in Maine!) to think of winter as a time to stop paying attention to Nature… because everything shuts down, right? In the years when we have done Nature noticing as a congregation, we’ve usually ended it in fall.
But there is plenty to notice, even here, even now.
The shapes of snowflakes, and the patterns of frost or ice on lakes and puddles.
Which birds stick around, and where we see them.
Tracks in snow that tell us about animal neighbors we never see.
The myriad shapes and forms and textures of dead flower stalks left over from the summer – a winter prairie walk is just as fascinating as a summer walk.
The skeleton shapes of trees – branch patterns, squirrel nests.
An opportunity to notice the diversity of bark.
The different kinds of trees that stay green, their needles and cones.
There is rest – there is grace – there is awakeness, in attending to these things.
And, yes, there may be some pain, some poignancy, as well, when we notice that the signs of the seasons are changing in their pace and predictability, with global climate change.
But that’s part of it.
This quality of gentle, holy attentiveness I’m talking about isn’t a recipe for happiness. It’s a path to presence. To staying near to yourself, in Riley’s words.
To better knowing what really matters.
The seasons of Advent and Lent are parallel in many ways. Both seasons of preparation for great big holy mysteries; both seasons when we try to look unflinchingly at what is aching or amiss in our world, our lives, our souls.
But while people often take on some seasonal discipline in Lent, we don’t often do so in Advent.
Maybe we should. Maybe we can. Something small and gracious.
Something we choose to do less of – or more of – to give ourselves a little more time to breathe.
Put something down. Turn something off. Pick something up.
Maybe it’s as simple as setting up Advent candles wherever you usually eat, and at the end of your evening meal, turning down the lights – lighting a candle – saying a prayer, from a booklet or from your heart – and pausing to breathe in holy darkness.
Laurel Dykstra, “Wild Lectionary,” https://www.salalandcedar.com/wildlectionary?fbclid=IwAR1Mtxe-TS_1Bzh5rYcVEKdxhfAsAGR-MMaSrOETPQecXo9bOAO7hT0XnCo