Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The first Sunday of Advent

After a long season of dwelling among Presbyterians (they still love preaching), I find that the Episcopal Church is the place to be on the first Sunday of Advent. In most places the parishes are still holding on to the practice of not singing carols and not decorating the church, or at least not bringing out the full panoply, until Christmas Eve. Our churches are the only places in our culture where we can escape from the frenzy and then later celebrate the Twelve Days as they were meant to be.

The gospel for the First Sunday of Advent demands attention. It is always taken from one of the "little apocalypses" found in the teaching of Jesus. Brave preachers (and what other kinds of preachers would we want?) will face the reading directly. Advent begins in the dark, and Advent worship is not afraid to take a searching inventory of the darkness. Unless it is completely dark, our little night lights are not visible.

On the next two Sundays we hear the cry of John the Baptist, out of the wilderness. The wilderness imagery is not an accident, nor is his culture-cleaving message from another sphere: "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees."

Advent wreaths are fine (we have always had one at our house) but if we think of the season as a warm cuddly time we are missing the whole point. At the end of Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian, the satanic judge speaks of "a malign power" set against humankind. He asks, rhetorically, "What is death if not an agency?" Those are Advent questions. At the end of the book Death is triumphant.

The father and son in McCarthy's most recent book, The Road, find themselves at world's end. Some sort of global catastrophe has destroyed civilization. They discover an abandoned house:

Standing in the charred ruins of a library the father feels some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.

Our lives as Christians--as the people of God--are "predicated on a world to come." There is no imaginable horror, if God is God, that can entirely thwart his purpose. The love of the father for the son in The Road is a hint of that expectation.

"Watchman, what of the night?"

Thy Kingdom come.