So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Luke 21:35-36
You know the first Sunday of Advent is upon us when you see the folks of Grace Church performing their marching maneuvers around the nave while lamenting their sins and beseeching God to save them from all manner of chaos and mayhem. I know some of you may find the Great Litany tedious at worst and annoying at best but I promise you that it can be spiritually beneficial for us. Of course it could be worse…we could be like the medieval flagellants whipping ourselves as we process, seeking to show God just how repentant we are.
The flagellant movement, which was most active during the outbreaks of the Black Death, was a religious sect who believed that by punishing themselves physically they would gain God’s mercy. This pseudo-monastic mendicant order would enter a town and go immediately to the Church. After bells were rung to announce their arrival the group would find an open space and form a circle, marching around until the “master” told them to stop. At that point they would throw themselves on the ground and having been beaten by the master they would rise and then whip themselves and one another. During the plague they were welcomed into villages and towns who thought that the suffering offered by the flagellants would appease God and end their affliction. At its height the movement included clergy and laity, even children and processions as large as several thousand would move through cities and towns whipping themselves and calling the people to repentance. In 1261 the Pope banned the practice and shortly afterward it seemed to disappear as quickly as it had arisen. Interestingly, the Jesuit priest for whom I worked when I was first out of college told me that when he was in seminary in the lte1950’s, early 60’s there were still seminarians that would secretly flagellate themselves as a form of penance. It had been forbidden by the church but the piety apparently had not completely gone away. While I do not think it is a common practice among pious Catholics it still does occur.
Let us not be misguided here, the Great Litany is not done in order that we might wallow in the thought of our sinfulness or that we might evoke the mercy of God by the physical and verbal display of our deep piety. We do this to mark the beginning of Advent…the time of preparation for the coming of the Lord into the world. Remembering our sinfulness and asking for God’s mercy in such a detailed and formal way is a bit like a good spiritual housecleaning in preparation for the arrival of our sacred guest.
So often we go through this life only half-awake not fully aware of how sinful we are or how very blessed. We say and do hurtful things not because we are mean but because we are careless. We do not mind our words or consider the feelings of others before we speak. We set about our daily tasks intent on accomplishing something…anything…and will often forget the important things in life….like spending time with the ones we love…listening when someone needs to share something important or painful…making time for prayer and study of God’s Holy Word.
In the season of Advent the Church in her wisdom encourages us to slow down…to consider the things and the people that are most important to us and to see to our own spiritual health and well-being. Unlike Lent, which is wholly penitential, Advent is to be less about pondering our sin and more about preparing ourselves for what comes next. The Great Litany is just the beginning of that process.
As we move further into the season our lectionary will provide us with readings that point toward the second coming of Christ into the world…the parousia. For many years I was terrified at the idea of the end of the world and Jesus’ return. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, while the language about the end times seemed to suggest that we should somehow look forward to the event, the belief was that all those who were not “saved”, which meant of course belonging to our particular type of Christianity, would face a final judgment and a righteous but wrathful God would cast them into hell. When I was a child I prayed constantly that Jesus would just stay in heaven because I did not want him to come and cast my father, who did not attend church, into hell.
Even as a child I did not want to believe that God did not have a loophole for good people, who just believed something different or nothing at all that would allow them into heaven. Later, as I spent time studying the Bible and experiencing Christ in people who had a different religious upbringing I took hope from the passages that told me “God was not willing that any should perish” and that “Jesus had come into the world to save it not to condemn it.”
At this stage of my life and my belief I do not fret at the thought of Christ’s second coming for whenever and however it happens I do not believe that any of us will be abandoned by God. If the nature of God is indeed love then love is what we can expect. And in that love this creation and all that is in it will be restored to wholeness. The new heaven and the new earth along with a new us and the promise of eternity in the nearer presence of God. Many of our loved ones are already experiencing this and we can look forward to being reunited with them. How…I do not know…when….I cannot say…..but I do believe it will be so.
An interesting aspect of our lectionary for today is that each of the readings places our hope in a different temporal context. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the first coming…of the Messiah…the branch that would spring out of the root of Jesse….the righteous One who would come to judge the world truly, compassionately…with mercy. We believe that prophecy came to pass in the birth of Jesus, Immanuel…God with us.
In his letter to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul is speaking in his present, thanking God for the faithful people to whom he is writing and encouraging them to be strong, loving and holy so that if Christ were to return soon they would be found ready. Paul believed the second coming was imminent and his letters reflect the urgency that compelled him to work tirelessly to spread the Gospel to as many people in as many places as he could.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus himself is looking forward to the time of his return, after the completion of his earthly mission. He tells his disciples that there will be ample signs of his return if they can but understand them. He also says that when the time does come many will be afraid at the momentous events taking place but he encourages his followers to “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He does not want them to be afraid of his return but rather to look forward to it with anticipation and excitement for it will herald the completion of God’s great work in humanity and the beginning of their future in eternity.
Brothers and sisters, as we enter this blessed season of waiting and expectation let us not fear the future. Yes, these are chaotic times but God in Jesus Christ is always with us…even as we look forward to his return. Let us not be weighed down with guilt or anxiety. If we have sinned we can be forgiven…if we have failed now is the moment to try again. All things are being made new in Christ Jesus and that includes us. So take a moment to be still and meditate upon God’s love for you and for me and for the world….a love so great that the all powerful One came to be as we are. Let us find joy in our memorial preparation for the first coming and peace in our ongoing expectation of the second. God is with us….God will be with us…and all will be well.