The First Sunday in Advent, 2016. A Sermon preached in All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee, by Mother Julia Gatta
In the northern hemisphere, Advent falls during the darkest weeks of the year. And for us this year, the darkness of Advent is intensified by our post-election situation, a season of deep spiritual and moral darkness. Last week Chaplain Macfie noted the hundreds of reported incidents of racial, ethnic, and gender-based harassment that have exploded around the country in the aftermath of the election. Graduates of the School of Theology have sent us photos of their churches, whose walls or property have been desecrated by spray-painted swastikas and slogans such as “Heil Trump,” “Trump Nation,” “Whites Only,” and “Fag Church.” At least 200 churches have been similarly vandalized. Revolting and horrible as these things are, that is not the worst of it. The worst part of our post-election situation is that we are now on course to make this planet unlivable.
Addressing us in this grave situation are the lessons we hear on this First Sunday of Advent where Jesus speaks to us of his return—or advent—at the end of time. I find their ominous tone and apocalyptic imagery bracing and strangely comforting: the gospel finds us where we are. Faith doesn’t fool around; it’s about reality, including God’s surprising reality, and how we respond to it.
Today’s gospel begins with Jesus situated on the Mount of Olives, the very place where devout Jews expected the Messiah to come. There Jesus tells his disciples that even he does not know when he would return; the timing of his “second Advent” is a secret known only to the Father. In speaking of that momentous coming, Jesus drew upon the apocalyptic imagery of the Old Testament, as did St. Paul in his letters. In this scenario, our Lord’s triumphant return would be accompanied by cosmic catastrophe: the sun darkened, the moon failing to give light, stars falling from heaven. On earth, the birth pangs of the new age would be felt in the terror of earthquakes or the horrendous suffering of war. Most Episcopalians, along with many other mainline Christians, tend to find these passages in Scripture troubling, if not downright embarrassing. We are so repelled by hearing them interpreted with flat-footed literalism that we have rendered ourselves incapable of responding to their riveting poetry. We are so disturbed at seeing these Scriptures twisted into weapons to use against others or by ingenious attempts to put the end of the world on a timetable that we no longer hear their urgent message for ourselves. These passages are disturbing, it is true, but they are nonetheless crucial for a mature faith. And we especially need to hear them now.
Jesus frames his words about the end time in their largest imaginable social and environmental context: the story of the narrow survival of the human race and all other animal species. By alluding to the story of Noah and the Great Flood, Jesus drew from his religious tradition a tale of ecological catastrophe and of an entire people caught unawares. Noah’s contemporaries simply got on with their everyday lives as if things would just continue as they always had: “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The days before the flood were just business as usual; but then, like a thief in the night, the flood came and the world they knew was destroyed.
Our situation is different, for unlike the populace in this primordial myth, we have been warned. Since the 1970s scientists have been telling us that the earth can no longer sustain the demands we have placed on her. Like Old Testament prophets they repeatedly urged us to change our ways before it was too late. We didn’t heed their warnings because we didn’t want to believe them, not because the data they brought forward was insufficient to substantiate their case. We wanted business as usual. In the Bible, such an attitude of willed blindness is called “hardness of heart.” “For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage . . . and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.”
One of the glories of the Anglican tradition, in my view, is its openness to truth from any and every quarter. St. Augustine once said that no matter where the Christian finds truth, the Christian knows that it is his Lord’s. This has been the characteristic Anglican approach as well, appreciative of both science and the liberal arts as ways of discovering the depth and breadth of God’s truth and wisdom. It makes a university like this, Episcopal in its foundation and character, a congenial place for seeking to integrate science, history, economics, literature, and the arts within a unified theological vision. It is also the mission of education to stretch our imaginations in all sorts of ways; to see that things may be true even if they seem remote and don’t immediately affect us.
Now we are facing some very disturbing truths. According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 is very likely to become the hottest year on record, surpassing 2015, the previous record-holder. In fact, of the hottest 17 years on record, 16 of them have occurred in this century. In September, you may have read that atmospheric concentration of CO2 permanently passed the 400 parts per million threshold—a number way ahead of where we thought we’d be some years back, when scientists were telling us that we could only avoid catastrophic climate change beneath the 350 ppm threshold. And that’s only what’s happening now. Because of a feed-back loop, climate change will continue to accelerate, even if we drastically curtail our emissions today. So the need for conversion of heart, for accepting limitation, for scaling back our greed and worship of convenience, and yes, for using our imaginations, has never been more urgent. God gave us this beautiful planet to tend and cherish. When we love and respect Mother Earth she, in turn, feeds and cares for us and all other creatures. Can you imagine a greater act of ingratitude towards our Creator or a greater crime against our children and grandchildren and the six billion people who share this earth with us than to wreak havoc with the natural cycles that have been in place for the last 12,000 years?
“You know what time it is,” writes St. Paul, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Rest is good when needed, but there is a spiritual sloth that is sheer escapism or despair. It is time to wake up, our lessons are telling us, in order to live fully alert to our situation—our personal situation and the world’s. Part of our awakening, Paul advises, consists in setting aside those habits that drug or dull our minds or dissipate our energies. In these dark days of Advent, many of us feel truly in the dark. We can acknowledge being bewildered, scarcely knowing what to do, without shame, for the journey of faith often navigates periods of intense darkness. Advent, like all the other liturgical seasons, simply underscores a dimension of the mystery of faith that is true year round. The watchword of Advent has always been vigilance: “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
We are waiting for the Lord to come, for his Advent. Is there any doubt that we need a savior? And as we wait, what might be some signs of his coming? Today’s gospel speaks the apocalyptic language of cosmic catastrophe, but we do well to remember that the word “apocalypse,” contrary to popular notions, simply means “unveiling.” It refers to something becoming manifest that was previously hidden. That is why the final book of the Bible is sometimes called the “Apocalypse of St. John” and at other times the “Revelation of St. John.” In other words, apocalypse is about truth at last revealed. Having been polluted for so long by an avalanche of lies, even an “inconvenient truth” is welcome and cleansing. So when Christ comes, even now, he comes as truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said.
Notice, too, how Christ comes to us in this Eucharist. He comes among us from the far side of death. He brings with him his own resurrected life. He irradiates our present with the future we share with him, filling us even now in these dark days with his life, and joy, and hope. He speaks to us through words of Scripture, and his holy presence fills humble things of earth: bread and wine, the products of soil combined with human labor and skill. And he transfigures them, transforms them. Bread and wine are brought to the table; we receive them back as Jesus our Lord. Even in the darkness, we have this light.
The day after the election, Dean Alexander charged all of us at the seminary to burrow into St. Paul’s 12th chapter of Romans. I pass on that sound advice to you. Some of Paul’s words have been lifelines for me. For instance, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Or my personal favorite: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”