The First Sunday in Advent, Year A – Matthew 24:36-44
“But about that day and hour no one knows,” Jesus says.
I hear those words and can’t help but remember days and hours about which I did not and could not know:
- The day and hour I became a dad for the first time;
- The day and hour a judge decreed that I was a divorced man;
- The day and hour one of my best friends called and told me he had cancer;
- The day and hour I saw Cyndy for the first time;
- The day and hour I knelt before Bishop Folts and was ordained a priest;
- The day and hour our younger son called and told me he had joined the Marines;
- The day and hour I stood at our older son’s grave and offered the prayers of committal;
- The day and hour you all called me to be your priest;
- The day and hour Cyndy said to me, “Our life together is so amazing and it keeps getting better. Thank you.”
- The day and hour I felt lost and confused in a life in which I had everything I wanted.
The day and hour about which we do not know comes to us in a thousand different ways. It comes to us as an unexpected gift, an unwanted loss, an unimagined future, a dream come true. Regardless, we had no way of knowing when, how, or if it would come. And we had no way of knowing what it would bring. Despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. There are days and hours that take us completely by surprise, in good ways and in not so good ways.
I’ve told you some of mine. Tell me some of yours. Tell me about the day and hour about which you did not and could not know. What was the day and hour that took you by surprise and caught you off guard? What happened on that day and in that hour that you never expected, wanted, or could have imagined?
The day and hour of uncertainty and not knowing are what Advent is about. Advent isn’t just a season in the church year. It describes our life. The seasons of the Church year are a lens through which we see and reflect on our lives.
Advent, whether in the Church or in life, always begins with the day and hour about which we do not know. Nobody knows when, where, or how that day and hour will come. It is unforeseeable and unpredictable. It comes, Jesus says, like a thief in the night or a sweeping away flood.
Every year the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent sounds ominous and threatening. We call texts like today’s apocalyptic and we tend to hear them as end of the world texts. That’s often how it feels when life is uncertain, the future is unpredictable, and we are powerless to control what comes next. It can feel like the world is ending.
But in today’s gospel Jesus never says that the world is ending. Jesus is not predicting the end of the world. He’s talking about how to live in the face of impermanence and changes that are neither predictable nor controllable.
Impermanence and uncertainty characterize today’s gospel. It begins with the day and hour about which we do not know and ends with the unexpected hour. And everything in between is about not knowing.
Jesus speaks about not knowing five times. We do not know the day, the part of the night, or the hour in which it – whatever it is – will happen. What we do know is that it – whatever it is – happens in the ordinariness of life: eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, working in the fields and grinding meal.
And that makes me wonder if we’ve misunderstood what apocalypse is really about. What if apocalypse is not about some unknown day in the future but about today, and every day? Maybe every day is an apocalypse. Maybe we are always living in apocalyptic times.
Look at the world today. Read the news. If there is a theme it is uncertainty, not knowing, a feeling of chaos and powerlessness. So what if apocalypse is not about the grand finale, the end of the world, but about living in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing, living with the unpredictability of the future, living in the midst of chaos?
Apocalyptic days and hours are difficult ones. Life feels chaotic and out of control. We often don’t know what to say and sometimes we don’t know what to pray. Questions abound and answers are few and far between. Explanations neither satisfy nor make sense. That day and hour is not so much about what is happening in our head but what is happening in our heart, that deep place where the mystery of God and our own life meet.
The question then is not about the end of the world, but about how we live with uncertainty, not knowing, and powerlessness. What does faithfulness look like in those times? How do we live in the midst of impermanence? Where is our center on that day and hour?
The challenge of Advent, of that day and hour about which you do not know, is to cultivate what the poet John Keats called “negative capability.” Negative capability is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason, without blaming others and justifying ourselves.
I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he says we are to “keep awake” and to “be ready.”
Keep awake and be ready for what? I wish I could tell you but I can’t. I don’t know. It’s the day and hour about which no one knows. The most I can tell you is to keep awake and be ready for whatever comes to you, and what does not come to you. It is the unfolding of your life.
These days and hours are unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent. That does not, however, diminish life. It intensifies life. It heightens its value. It deepens its meaning. It opens us to the possibility of the impossible, to life and more life. Everything matters. And we don’t want to miss a moment.
Father Michael, it is so good to read your words again! Thank you for this timely message as I experience or perhaps endure is a better term, a significant time of Advent in my own life. A year ago today I was celebrating 10 days of marriage – 10 days! Two days from now my husband and I will be meeting at the courthouse to submit paperwork to have our marriage annulled. Never, ever, could I have imagined my life taking this path in my journey. And so, I too need to learn how “to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason, without blaming others and justifying ourselves.”
And while I am struggling – especially with the timing during what is supposed to be a most joyous time of year – with the harsh reality of being alone again I am also thankful for this season of my life no matter its present challenges – they simply confirm I have a lot more living and learning to do and that I am still a vital living being! This is the start of something new – if I can only wait. Thank you for letting me go on and on.
And thank you for your faith-filled insight on the human struggle that is life.
Ericka, thank you for sharing with me a bit of what is going on for you. I am sorry for is happening. I know it is painful and unsettling – and, as you say, not what you ever imagined or expected. What you say about more living and learning, and the start of something new suggest to me you are cultivating negative capability in this Advent Season. It’s difficult work and often gives no immediate satisfaction or sense of progress. But progress in these days is measured in small concrete steps – getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to work, showing up as best you can, taking care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself.
God’s peace be with you.
Thank you, Fr. Mike! I wish I could come to Texas and hear you in person… someday perhaps.
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A moving post – thank you. So much in life is unknown. I agree with what you say about living with “negative capability”. Life is like that. And good to know that God is with us in our uncertainty. Best wishes, Michael
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Thank you. It seems life is often a season of Advent – uncertainty, waiting, hoping.
Blessings to you in this Advent Season. God’s peace be with you.