30 Nov 2008
“‘Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.’” (Mark 13:33) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
Today we begin the season of Advent. This is a time of waiting; waiting for Christ to come into our world. And there lies the conundrum of Advent. He already came. Advent is our time of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas, which is all well and good in the cycle of the liturgical year, but it makes it a bit confusing in the forward movement of history. We are now long past the coming of the Christ Child, some 2,000 years long past, and yet Advent is a season of our still waiting. Advent gives perfect expression to the biblical theme that we talk about often in our Bible study group of “already-not-yet.” As soon as Jesus was conceived of Mary and the Holy Spirit, as soon as the Son of God became the Son of Man by taking on our human nature, salvation was earned, the end of time began, the final victory of God’s kingdom on earth was achieved. That’s the “already” of the “already-not-yet” of the Bible. The coming of Christ into our world was the final act of God’s salvation history. God can do no more than what has already been done in Jesus. The “not-yet” is where our waiting comes into the picture. The end result is already certain in the mind of God, but it has not-yet been played out in history. Human time has not yet caught up to God’s promise.
I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was a World War II film. A small group of Allied commandos was supposed to destroy a bridge to avert a Nazi advance. To do so, they decided to blow-up a dam up-river from the bridge, the rushing torrent of water and debris would take-out the bridge-pilings and with them the bridge itself. Two of the commandos followed tunnels within the dam to its very bowels. There they set the explosives, and there they realized that once they went off, there they would die as the dam collapsed. They continued anyway, but the explosives didn’t destroy the dam, at least immediately. Then after agonizing seconds they heard some pretty unsettling creaks and cracks. They high-tailed it out of there and made it to safety in just enough time to see the whole thing collapse. The explosives-expert knew exactly what he was doing. He gave the men time to get out by not making the explosion too large, but he made it large enough to cause structural damage so that gravity and the weight of all the water behind the dam could do the rest eventually. That’s what we mean by “already-not-yet.” As soon as the explosives were detonated, the result was irreversible; it was certain. What made the soldiers who planted the explosives, who weren’t aware of the plan, apprehensive, what made them think that they had failed, was the waiting, the “not-yet.”
Advent is like that, it pulls us in two directions simultaneously. We are to wait with expectation for the coming of Christ at Christmas which begins with the story of Bethlehem and ancient Israel, that’s the “already” of history, but Advent also calls upon us to wait quite a bit more anxiously for the coming completion of Jesus’ Incarnation when the kingdom of heaven and God’s kingdom on earth will be indistinguishable, that’s the “not yet” of hope. Advent is us sitting in the bowels of the dam not sure of whether that’s going to happen. This tug of war between the “already” and the “not-yet” is played out in the hymns of Advent. For example, our Recessional Hymn this morning is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The first verse speaks of “ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Until He appears? He already has, and yet we are still confronted with the unfulfilled expectations of verse two: “O come, desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice!” [Mumbai, India] That second-verse-expectation seems no closer to fulfillment now than it did on the day Jesus was born. This disconnect between Advent’s hope of the “already” and the world’s reality of the “not-yet” is what can make Advent truly confusing and for some even disheartening. We’re in the bowels of the dam right now in Advent. The “already” is over and done with, the “not-yet” is why we anxiously wait.
“Wait,” that’s not one of my favourite words. In today’s Gospel, Jesus expresses the need to wait by referring to the master of a house who is traveling abroad. I personally don’t travel well. My brother-in-law, on the other hand, is traveling this Thanksgiving weekend, as are millions of other people. He left Aberdeen, Maryland mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the year. He, his wife and their two energetic young boys traveled all night long so that they could arrive in Detroit on Thanksgiving morning to see the parade. After the parade they were then going to travel to his in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner and all the activity implied by that. If that was my Thanksgiving, I don’t know if I’d make it. I don’t travel well, and I think the main reason is that I don’t wait well. The whole time I’m in the car trying to get from point A to point B I think of as wasted time.
This is an absolutely useless kind of waiting. And this kind of waiting as wasted time is the trap that can ruin Advent too, can take away all of its meaning and purpose, can strip it of all its hope and expectation. If we sit back and wait, if we do nothing but wait, if we trust only in Jesus’ “already” to the point where we expect to have to do nothing during the “not-yet,” then Advent’s waiting is wasted time. Instead, Advent is supposed to be a time of waiting and preparing. We are expected to do what we can to “bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease.” We light the candles of the Advent wreath not to simply anticipate the coming of the light of Christ, but to increase that light. Advent asks us what are we doing while we wait. What are we doing to increase the light of Christ in the world, even in ourselves? Jesus says today, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Make sure we’re doing something not just sleeping and waiting for His return. Jesus has done His part “already.” Placing our trust in Him and His “already,” let us do what we can as we wait during our “not-yet.” For this we pray in Jesus’ name.