On your marks, get set, go! Looking back over the decades to my school sports day I remember those words being shouted out at the beginning of races which, I hasten to say, I was not very good at but I enjoyed the stimulus of the run. There were prizes for the winner and the runner up who were applauded for their performance. What helped us to ‘get on our marks’ and ‘get set’ was that we knew what was to come. We knew what was required of us and we could practice beforehand. We knew that the race would end at the finishing post. The unexpected could occur; we could fall over and be disqualified or we could decide, for whatever reason, that we could not participate as we might not feel well enough to do so. In spite of such unknowns, preparation was straightforward because we had a clear idea of the task in hand.
What, though, can we do to prepare for the momentous events of the celebration of the birth of Christ and his Second Coming? A question to be asked on this particular Sunday, being Advent Sunday, when we are called upon to engage in this preparation. No-one can say for certain why this period of preparation came into being but it is understood to have been in existence from the fifth century. In the sixth century, at the Council of Tours, it was decreed that monks should fast every day until Christmas and fasting was observed until the ninth century. What, though, about our preparation today?
Let us seek guidance by turning to today’s Gospel reading to see what Luke says about this preparation. Luke gives us a picture of tribulation followed by triumph. There will be the destruction of Jerusalem by the Gentiles and then great cosmic disturbance heralding the Son of Man coming in a cloud ‘with power and great glory’. The cosmic disturbance will mean signs in the Sun, the moon and the stars and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’. When these events take place, Jesus calls upon his followers to stand up and raise their heads because their redemption is drawing near. They must be ‘on their marks’ and ‘get set’ or they will not escape the trouble that lies ahead.
In this foretelling of tribulation and triumph, of confusion and glory, the call is for us to be alert and to pray that we have the strength to ‘escape the things that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man’. That would not have been easy for the followers of Jesus then, nor us now, because of the distinction between earthly time and Divine time.
How can you prepare for an event in Divine time when Divine activity is on a different timescale? If we are called upon to run a race our preparation is aided by knowing the start time but with Divine time we do not know the timescale. God’s time has no beginning and no end. In our worship this is reflected in it being a cycle of feasts and seasons as opposed to the linear time of our earthly existence. As Sister Teresa White expresses it in her book ‘Hope and the Nearness of God’: ‘Advent will beckon us to re-enter the circle of liturgical time’. When, in Advent, we re-enter the circle of liturgical time, we can prepare for Christmas Day in the spirit of hope, joy and thanksgiving, because we are celebrating that which has already occurred and we have the specific date in linear time of 25 December for that celebration. What, though, about the Second Coming? Are we to be alert and watchful until generation has succeeded generation? Or will it occur in the immediate future? It is not easy to prepare yourself if you do not know the timescale.
Then there is the mystery of Divine activity. The circle of liturgical time is mysterious and, as we have learnt from today’s Gospel reading, full of both the expected and unexpected. How do you prepare for events that are both monumental and mysterious?
What we can do, as Jesus says, is to avoid if possible over-preoccupation with the worries of this life so that we can avoid being ‘caught out unawares’. We can take time in Advent to ponder and reflect upon Divine purpose through silence, meditation and prayer. We are waiting for the Divine events to come and in that wait we can, as one Commentary on Luke expresses it ‘begin to see the world through the eyes of God’. I wonder if, in this pandemic that we are currently experiencing, we are being nudged towards this reflective state as we cannot move about quite as freely as we once did? I for one, as I am sure many do, love the hustle and bustle that leads up to Christmas and the sparkle and excitement of it all, but are we being called upon, via intermittent lockdowns, to be still and know that he is God?
In today’s Gospel reading, Luke tells us of fear and uncertainty but he does not leave us in that state. Following the tribulation of the cosmic disturbance he brings us back to nature. Cosmic signs give way to what we can see and understand in nature. Jesus says that the leaves sprouting on the trees in summer are also an indication that the Kingdom of God is at hand. This gentle imagery is to show us that God is about openness and freedom of the spirit and love. This defeats the purpose of the Devil. To quote from Walter Brueggemann, in his book ‘Poetry in a Prose-Flattened World’: ‘The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that it can be administered’. The coming of the Kingdom defeats this purpose. We can, then, in Advent, reflect with thanksgiving upon that triumph and what today’s reading asks us to focus upon, which is not the birth pangs of cosmic chaos that precede the coming of the Kingdom, but the permanence of the Word of God. As we have heard today: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away’.
So we can, in Advent, pray, reflect and meditate upon the Word of God. We cannot be alert and watchful at all times but we can allow ourselves some space and time to let the Holy Spirit breath the breath of God upon us and fill us with life anew.