A Strange Beginning

A prediction of The End of the World seems like a strange way to start the Advent season. Or is it?

Hear the Words

Listen to an audio version of this reflection.

The Scripture

Mark 13:24-37
retold by Deborah

"But in the following days, after all that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather those he has chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“Learn from the fig tree: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

“Be aware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

“Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come: in the evening, or in the daytime; at midnight, or noontime, at sunset or at dawn — or else he may find you asleep when he arrives unexpectedly.

“And what I say to you I say to everyone: ‘Keep awake.’”

Photo of a flower

A Very Human Impulse by Deborah Beach Giordano

Any Day Now...

waiting empty stableThis passage from Mark seems an odd beginning to the Advent season. Here we are, looking forward to Christmas, preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus …. and we are presented with words that appear to predict disaster following upon a series of disasters: the sun growing dim, the moon vanishing from the sky — the Apocalypse!

Not exactly what you’d call an encouraging message.

But there is a tradition of Christians coming to believe that The End Times are near. Really near. Like tomorrow, already. Like: “Brace yourself: here it comes” – near.

The sect that became Seventh Day Adventists originated in religious communities which believed that The Day of the Lord would be October 22, 1844. In anticipation, many of of the members gave away all of their belongings and property: their homes and farms, stores and businesses, clothing and foodstuffs. Congregations assembled on hilltops and waited. And waited. This event came to be known as the "Great Disappointment.” There have been others.

Funny, though, to be “disappointed” that the world didn’t come to an end.

A Hasty Escape?

signI wonder if some of these predicted (perhaps hoped for?) apocalypses originate in a very human impulse: “Let me outta here!”

Between wars and rumors of war, civil unrest, disease and death, sorrow and suffering, threats known and unknown, the notion of a hasty escape can sound pretty darned attractive. Note, too, that those doing the predicting always assume that they will be among those onboard the evacuation flights.

It’s a dangerous temptation, though — and not only for the personal presumption of perfect innocence and the willingness to consign others to perdition. It is the temptation to surrender; to give up our hope and prayers for this world, to cease our work for the Lord, to literally say “The Hell with it.”

A Timely Reminder

On further reflection, this “scary” passage may be just what we need: a reminder that times have always been scary in one way or another, that there are times when the sun looks dim, when the moon has lost its luster, when the powers of this world are shaken, when the future seems grim. Yes, we know the feeling — and so have others, for perhaps as long as there have been people; as if we’re teetering on the brink of disaster, as if any day now the heavens will open and out will pour …..(?)

What are You Expecting?

Just then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord!
    ~ Luke 2:9-11

Well, that’s a surprise! How unexpected. How very curious. “The Day of the Lord” — when God is supposed to show up, arrayed in might and splendor, ready to take names and mete out punishment, to lay siege to the bad guys and all that is evil with a full-on, scorched earth policy — turns out to be the birth-day of a little child.

Jesus sent from heaven

The King of Kings born to a working-class family, rather than royalty. The Day of the Lord heralded by angels’ songs of comfort and joy instead of war cries. The Almighty walking with the human community, seeking to fully know and be known.

Talk about a “Reset”!

Interpreting the Apocalypse

How are we to interpret this re-vision of The Apocalypse? (The word “apocalypse” means unveiling or revelation — and it is certainly a revelation to those expecting The Worst.) It causes us to reimagine our fears and our hopes: a new day always dawns — no matter how convinced we are that All is Lost; new beginnings are always possible; there is light, however faint, within the bleakest, darkest night.

“within thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light,”
    ~ the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem

bowl of cherries

This does not mean that life becomes a bowl of cherries, that pumpkins will turn into carriages, that lead is transformed into gold. In specifics, much remains as it was; what changes is within us. In the knowledge of Emmanuel (God is with us), we shed our despair and put on the whole armor of God; we are given renewed strength, courage and confidence. We may not finish the task, but we will not cease our efforts, we will look to the future with unconquerable hope, and not be bogged down by expectations of The Worst. We will carry the Light within our hearts.

A New Normal

After seeing the newborn messiah, the shepherds went back to tending their sheep, the Magi returned to their native country and their observations of the heavens; Mary and Joseph took the baby home to Nazareth where Joseph resumed his work as a carpenter. Life would go on as it had…. the same and yet changed.

There was a new outlook: a renewed confidence in God’s nearness and compassion; a profound understanding of what truly, Ultimately Matters. Like Mary, all who were (and are) touched by this (birth) Day of the Lord cherish these things in our hearts. We recognize it as a Divine Sign of encouragement: strengthening us, inspiring us, fueling us with hope and courage.

About that Star

Every year around this time there are discussions about the star of Bethlehem: that Divine Early Warning System detected by the magi. Maybe it was a comet, or a supernova; perhaps a conjunction of planets, an eclipse, or the annual return of a constellation into view. Of course there are those who insist it is mere imagination, an event that never really happened: a fanciful tale told by the fireside.

These theories and speculations and debates are endless and essentially, I suggest, unimportant. Surely what matters is that there were those “with eyes to see” when the Message was sent. The Eternal has been trying to get our attention and to communicate with us from the Beginning — sometimes some of us pick up on it, sometimes (most times, perhaps) we don’t. The magi apparently did.

Maybe it wasn’t the brightest star, or perhaps it was a newly-visible one — who would recognize a single new dot within the blanket of silver-gray that encircled the heavens, other than a few specialist sky-watchers? Something (Someone) called to those people at that time, and they responded. So, too, with the shepherds.

Keeping Watch

There is something particularly beautiful and true in the herald angels’ appearance in the midst of the Dark Night to the shepherds on the Judean hillsides. Huddling near a small campfire, chilled and lonely, tormented by mosquitos and bitten by bugs, they were largely ignored and forgotten — unless they screwed up. But the Lord God sent them a special invitation to Jesus’ birthday party!

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord!
    ~ Luke 2:10-11

angel to shepherdThis is another aspect of the nature of this extraordinary Apocalypse, this surprising Day of the Lord. It is the revelation of God’s abundant, embracing care and concern. As the angels proclaim, this is “good news of great joy to all people”: all people — no one is ignored or avoided or set aside — all are invited in, all are welcome.

Wherever you are, whoever you are — you are important to God. Lonely, lost, isolated, perhaps enmeshed in a Dark Night of the Soul that seems unending, the angels’ message is for you, too — perhaps especially for you. Your life matters, you have not been forgotten, you have not been forsaken: the Eternal is with us — with you, united in resilient, unending love.

What a glorious Day of the Lord!

Be Alert, Therefore

As we’ve said, after the magnificent revelation of the infant Christ, everybody went back to life as it was. Except, of course, it wasn’t as it was. The “new normal” for those who had seen and heard the Good News was indelibly, utterly different. Where there had been weary hopelessness there was renewed faith and courage, a sense of purpose — a restored sense of being.

Imagine what they would have missed out on if they had been so downcast by their worries, so shrouded in melancholy, that they had not seen the Light, had not heard the angelic song!

“Be alert, therefore!”

Be on the lookout for signs on the earth and in the heavens of the divine Good News. Do not be afraid — do not expect The Worst; be courageous and hope-filled. Be alert and ready, not to be among those removed from the earth, but as those called to the serious task of restoring this world, working together with “His chosen from the four ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Sounds like quite a powerful team!

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in dry times, and strengthen your bones. You shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

Those from among you shall rebuild the ruined places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called The Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.
    ~ Isaiah 58:11-12, NKJV

a star in the sky

Be alert, therefore, for there is much to do!

A blessed, hope-filled, joy-fueled Advent to you,


Suggested Spiritual Exercise

Nourish your soul with this heavenly reminder:

And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord!  
 ~ Luke 2:10-11