When I was growing up Baptist in the south, we never celebrated Advent. I’m not even sure I heard about it at all until high school or college! But every year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we pulled out all the Christmas albums, stacked as many on the turntable as it would hold, and spent the day singing along and decorating the Christmas tree.
After we assembled the tree (always artificial), we untangled all the lights and wrapped every single branch – that alone took half the day. Then each ornament was carefully placed, making sure no two that were alike hung too close together. The most special ornaments always went on first, to be sure they’d have the best spots to show themselves off. And the sentimental ornaments, the ones that were too special not to keep, but too raggedy or plain to show off? They were carefully placed towards the back of the tree so that no side would go empty. Every ornament – whether in the front or around back – each one had a story, and every year those stories were told again, those memories reawakened. Those ornaments were reminders of who we were as a family and what was important to us.
It was our ritual for beginning the season and getting ready for Christmas. And when I began to practice Advent, it didn’t feel all that different. The Advent wreath with its candles, the special colors we use, the songs and scripture readings and stories we come back to year after year to remind us of who we are and what is important to us, to begin the season and get ourselves ready for Christmas.
But this year, as I’ve thought about the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, and the Gospel reading from Matthew in particular, I can’t get away from the feeling that we’re getting Advent wrong, or at least missing something important in it.
Advent is the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate the miracle of God becoming a man, when Jesus came as a tiny crying baby in a stable in Bethlehem, and changed everything. But Advent is also the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate Jesus’ second coming, the day when he will come again to earth to complete his mission, when he will set everything right and the world will finally be all it was meant to be. It will change everything!
That’s the way I’ve come to think of it, at least. But when I was growing up, I was taught the second coming would be the End of the World. And while I believe the way that was taught to me was misguided and even harmful, Jesus’ words to his disciples in the day’s Gospel reading tell me there’s something more to that than I’ve wanted to see.
36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.
Jesus has been telling his disciples about the end of the world – the end of their world. Things will get bad, and then they’ll just keep getting worse. Jerusalem and the Temple, the center of their world, the things that tell them who they are and what matters to them – they are going to be completely destroyed, and the people who manage to survive will have to flee for their lives. And after all that suffering and destruction, “the Son of Man,” Jesus says, will return and gather up his people. It’s all going to be very surprising, and Jesus is warning his followers not to be surprised.
The whole chapter can be confusing, and Christians have been arguing about what it all means for hundreds of years. Did what Jesus describes happen just a few decades later, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE? It did. Could what he describes happen again at some unknown time in the future? Many Christians believe it must, since the second coming didn’t happen back then.
Honestly? I don’t know what I think this passage is telling us about what will or won’t happen to Jerusalem in the future, but I do think Jesus is talking about something that I’ve been missing in Advent.
Jesus obviously isn’t telling us to take four weeks to prepare for the day we’ve chosen to celebrate his birth, his first coming. Christmas Day is nothing if not predictable – it comes around on the same day every year. But the end of the world? The end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day of the year.
It will be like the time before the flood, Jesus explains: “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” right up until the end. “Then two will be in the field;” Jesus says, “one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
Somebody’s eating dinner and the phone call comes with news that shatters their world. We go to work, fall in love, prepare for the future, and suddenly, out of nowhere, our world ends and nothing will ever be the same.
The bishop who confirmed me was named John Rucyahana. He was the bishop of Rwanda at the time. John had escaped the genocide because his family went to Uganda as refugees when he was in his teens. When he returned to Rwanda as a grown man in the days following the genocide, it was only to learn that many members of his Tutsi family had been taken, while he was left. In only one hundred days, out of the eight million people in Rwanda, one million people had been hunted and murdered by their fellow Rwandans. The world had ended for them in ways we can barely begin to imagine.
And John was left. John and the other Tutsi who had survived, and the Hutu friends and neighbors who had slaughtered them. They were left, in the rubble of their lives and country. There was nothing left to do but build a new world, and that’s when, as I see it, Jesus showed up. He showed up in John and many others. John dedicated himself to his country and became one of the architects of a nationwide movement of accountability, justice, reconciliation, and mercy the likes of which the world has never seen.
I remember Bishop Rucyahana telling us that if the churches of Rwanda had truly been confirming Christians instead of merely going through the motions of a formality, the genocide would never have happened and one million slaughtered Tutsi would still be alive.
To him, confirmation was a matter of life and death. To him, our confirmation meant that, while others had been taken, we were left to build a new world – the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, or perhaps better understood for the world we live in today, the KIN-DOM of God, where there is no “us” and “them,” where no human being can be considered less human or less deserving of life and every good thing than we are.
Whether the people and places that make up our world are taken by violence, or disease, or poverty, or natural disaster, or immigration policy, or a legal system that’s anything but just, or divorce, or misunderstanding, or simply someone else’s choices; it’s no easy thing to be the one who is left. Confusion, fear, guilt, regret, anger, grief, survival – there’s no end to the things those who are left may have to deal with.
It may be us or someone else, but the end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day.
And in the middle of the grief and everything that goes with it, there’s always a new world to be built. That’s when Jesus will show up in and through us to build his Kin-dom, if we will let him.
Whatever else the end of the world and the second coming of Christ may mean, it means at least that – here, now, today.
And the thing I think we miss in Advent is that Advent is not really about Advent, or even Christmas. It’s a reminder to us to practice. To practice being ready for the things we don’t know are coming. To practice for all the things we know will come but not when or how. To practice for the end of the world and being left. To practice building a new world in the rubble, a world that looks like the Kin-dom of God.
Let’s try not to get it wrong.