When I was a preschool teacher, one of the greatest joys of that work was watching kids learn how to transition from chaotic scribbles with crayons to slowly learning to control their hands and their writing utensil. It was a great joy because of the pride that the kids had once they finally learned to painstakingly and slowly write their name on their own, but it was also a gift to get to see them take the prewriting skills, like scribbling on piece of paper and hone them into the miraculous human invention of conveying who we are through written language. If a child isn’t allowed the opportunities to manipulate a writing utensil in a chaotic and uncontrolled way before they are supposed to direct it in a precise and intentional way, then the process of learning to write will be much more complicated.
Here, at the beginning of the season of Advent, the beginning of our liturgical year, it feels like we are collectively on the cusp of learning how to direct the chaos that we have been undergoing. In so many ways, this year has been a season of waiting, and to step into another liturgical season without being able to be physically present with each other is just another tick in the waiting column. The invitation that Advent extends to us is that we wait expectantly for the Savior to be born, and an invitation to wait some more after a year full of waiting seems to fall flat at first. It’s like all we’ve been doing is scribbling across the year in broad, uncontrolled marks of grief, confusion, frustration, and of waiting beyond what is typically expected of us, and to be asked to wait in the darkness a bit longer might seem laughable.
I can see, though, I can see the ways in which our scriptures set for today, like a teacher, gently guiding us to hold the marker a certain way, to practice short straight lines and smaller curves that once put together spell out a road map to how we might approach the mystery of the birth of our Savior. While it seems that we have been asked continually to wait during this season of life, it is only now that the real waiting begins; it is only now that the waiting comes with a depth of intention and purpose that we might have lacked back in March.
Throughout the season of Advent, our services on Sunday will look different than they ever have before. Over the next four weeks, our sole focus will be on the growing light of Christ. Each week we’ll move closer in the Nave as we approach the mystery of the nativity of our Lord, and the light around crèche and in this space will grow with each scripture reading and response that follows it. But today, as we begin this long, four-week journey of intentional waiting, we start in the dark.
We start in the dark, just like the seeds that will burst open deep in the darkness of the bleak midwinter soil waiting for the spring to come; just like a baby waits in darkness of its mother’s womb; the Christ child is waiting within Mary, the one who bears God. We start in the dark, but when we pay attention to the scriptures that will come across our awareness this season, we can see, even if it’s imperceptible at first, how the light ever dimly starts to glow.
But the waiting in the dark that we will experience this Advent will not be a time of waiting wherein which we stumble with one foot in front of another, blindly trying to make it through the next day or week. No, Advent, especially this Advent, is a time in which we can be keenly aware that though we may be waiting in the dark and we don’t know fully what comes ahead, we hold onto the faith that hope will come, and in that we can rest in the knowledge that God is present with us in our waiting.
God is present with us in our waiting, even if our time of waiting is filled with frustration or anger at ourselves, others, or even God. In our passage from the Hebrew Bible set for today, we can see that Isaiah is teaching us that in our broad strokes of waiting, of learning to hold this intention, even in the dark, that God is the one who forms and shapes us. The people of God in this passage own up to the fact that they have sinned, they have stepped away from God, and they aren’t afraid to name that God has hid God’s face from them, either. In their contrition, they ask God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” and they name for God, that though they wait to be brought into right relationship with God, they remember that they are the clay and the God is the potter, and that we are all the work of God’s hand, even in the dark.
God is present with us in our waiting, even if it’s filled with longing for something brighter and better. In our Gospel text, Jesus tells the disciples to keep awake, because they won’t know when he will return. Keep awake, Christ says, because although the longing for the next world is real and tangible, we have work to do here on this earth as we wait for the next. Though Mark’s gospel tends to move quickly, you can almost feel, even in the dark, the ways in which the disciples longed for God’s kingdom to come. Keep awake, even as we start in the dark.
God is present with us in our waiting, even if we feel inadequate. It might be easy to throw our hands up in the air, and to say if this whole year has been a year of waiting, and we haven’t mastered it yet, what difference will four weeks in the darkest part of the year make? As we wait this Advent, we can remember that the waiting that we are experiencing is one of intention and purpose, and it’s a sort of waiting to which God calls us. And it’s important to remember what Saint Paul tells the church at Corinth, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.” At this point, on Advent 1, the mystery of Christ’s birth feels far off and the world around us feels dark, but we can trust that as we focus on the growing light of Christ, we can bear witness to God’s presence, not only in our own lives, but in the lives of those around us. Beloveds, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift, even as we wait in the dark.
Soon, the darkness will fade away, but for now we wait, and we begin the long journey of approaching the mystery of God coming to be with us. Not by ripping the sky open, or by magically fixing all of our problems, but God will come to be with us in the form of a fragile newborn, in a lowly birth, and all that is asked of us in this moment is for us to wait and pray. The point of this Advent may be less about the truth of the glorious Christmas miracle, and more about the long walk to crèche. It’s about putting one foot in front of another, and trusting that God is present in our waiting as we slowly approach the mystery. Throughout this first week of Advent, it is my hope and prayer that we are all able to keep awake, trust that we have all we need, and to remember that God is present with us as we wait.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church via livestream for Advent 1B on November 29, 2020.