There are 394 shopping days left until Christmas 2018; it’s time for you to start planning your acquisitions strategies for next year. If that sounds comical, it’s only because it’s very, very close to the truth. We love countdowns. We count down the days until Christmas, birthdays, graduations, and retirement. This tendency makes us want to turn Advent into a countdown.
This Sunday’s Gospel can easily be interpreted as encouragement to count down to the feast of Jesus’ Nativity. Jesus concluded the parable in today’s reading by saying, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.” (Mk. 13:35) It sounds like advice to count the hours until the Lord’s return.
There is one problem, however, with turning human history into a countdown until the end of time. A countdown has an endpoint, a conclusion. It is a certainty that the universe will have an endpoint. The created order is finite; it will not last forever. Human nature, on the other hand, has been given the possibility of an eternal destiny.
Counting down the days until the end of time, as some religious zealots and secular doomsday predictors are fond of doing, creates a horizon for human life that is nothing more than finite. In the same way, turning Advent into a countdown to Christmas, makes Christmas a celebration of the finite. A feast that is concluded in a day does little to lift our hearts and minds above the ephemeral things of this world.
A relationship that comes to an end is dead. In exactly the same way, our faith is dead if it has an endpoint. I’d like to suggest that Advent is a microcosm of the process that ought to occupy every day of our lives. Rather than seeing Christmas as a goal to reach, Christmas ought to be seen as a model for living a life of faith. The Scripture readings today describe the first step toward the type of faith that can be both sustained for an entire lifetime and is life-sustaining for our spirits.
The prophet Isaiah reflected on the poor state of affairs in Jerusalem when the exiles returned from captivity in Babylon: the Temple was in ruins and the people had forgotten how to worship God. Despite his dejection, the prophet said, “Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand.” (Isa. 64:7) He had confidence that the city, the Temple, and the religion would be restored. His confidence was the result of his awareness of God’s presence with the returned exiles.
In a similar vein, Jesus told his disciples, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.” (Mk 13:35) He was speaking to people who expected a sudden Divine act of restoration that would remove Judea from Roman rule and return the Jews to authentic worship of God. Jesus’ parable was an attempt to get the disciples to see that the promise to Israel was being fulfilled in his life, teaching, and death.
Rather than a countdown to a finite endpoint, the Scripture readings today encourage us to seek God’s presence in our lives. Rather than pages we tear from a calendar, the four weeks of Advent are mileposts along the route to a living, growing faith in God. This week’s milepost is awareness; the first step to a lifelong faith is to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence.
Certainly, we have more than only six days in which to seek God’s presence, but I suggest that you spend this coming week by focusing specifically on God’s presence in your life. The Scriptures today offer two suggestions for attending to God’s presence.
Isaiah expressed the gratitude that is an unavoidable consequence of acknowledging God’s presence in one’s life. He said, “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you working such deeds for those who wait for him.” (Isa. 64:3) Our lives are so full of God’s blessings that it’s difficult to keep track of all that God has done for us. In this coming week, pay close attention to the people for whom you are thankful; they are signs of God’s presence in your life.
Secondly, try to see God present in your life in your hopes. Isaiah prayed to God on the People’s behalf, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we might be mindful of you in our ways!” (Isa. 64:4) He was expressing the hope that the newly returned exiles would renew their commitment to live just and devout lives. Throughout this coming week, look carefully at your hopes and dreams.
Advent is an outline for the path to a mature faith, a faith that understands that the only adequate destination for human life is an eternal destination. Rather than a countdown to the end of a season, Advent is a reminder to seek a new life that has no end.