The First Sunday of Advent, Year B – Mark 13:24-37
“In those days … the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see.”
This is one of those Sundays I’d prefer to skip. Today’s gospel (Mark 13:24-37) isn’t just about “those days,” it’s about these days too; the darkness of these days, the darkness of your life, and the darkness of my life. And I’m tired of the darkness. I’d prefer not to hear about or face the darkness. Maybe you don’t want to either.
It’s like this every year on the First Sunday of Advent. It doesn’t matter whether we read from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, every year it’s about darkness; signs in the sun, moon, and stars; not knowing; and keeping awake, paying attention, staying on guard.
These kind of stories are called apocalyptic and we often read them as end of the world stories. Some will use the imagery in these kind of stories as signs by which to predict the future. But that’s not what these stories are about and to read them in either of those ways is to misread them.
Apocalypse is a Greek word meaning to “uncover,” “reveal,” “disclose.” In that regard, apocalypse is about possibilities, and hope in the future. Apocalyptic literature like today’s gospel isn’t meant to scare us. It’s a wake-up call that uses dramatic poetic imagery and language to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise to us and the world. It’s not about focusing on some other world but about paying closer attention to this world. (Norris, Amazing Grace, 318-319)
Today’s gospel, like all apocalyptic literature, takes us to those threshold moments that leave us wondering whether things are falling apart or falling into place. By now most of you know me well enough to know that my answer to that is, “Yes. Yes, they are.”
It’s a threshold that leaves us betwixt and between, neither here nor there. It’s that space between what has been and what will be, the old that is no longer and the new that is not yet, life as it was and life as it might be. It’s the space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It’s the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land.
We come to that threshold in a thousand different ways. I remember a man who said to me, “I sold my ranch and I now no longer know who I am,” and a friend who spoke about having stopped drinking but not yet being sober. Those were threshold times, Advent times, of life for them.
I remember the struggles of adolescence and hearing my mom say, “He’s not yet a man but he’s no longer a boy.” My wife and I lived on that threshold when our younger son joined the Marines, and again later after our older son died. I came to that threshold when I let go of certain ideas and beliefs about God that no longer worked or made sense. It left me not sure about what I believed, or if I even believed. Today I stand on the threshold between old images and practices of who and how I was as a priest and new images and practices of my priesthood that I cannot yet clearly see or understand.
These threshold experiences are times of change and transition, invitations to self-reflection and growth, and openings to something new and unknown. They are scary and often painful times.
I’m betting every one of you could tell a story about a threshold time in your life. I wonder what that threshold is for you today. What happened? How did you get there? What has left you asking and not knowing whether your life is falling apart or falling into place? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
For most of us those thresholds are places of darkness, uncertainty, and not knowing. In the darkness “I don’t know” is our refrain. “I don’t know what to do.” “I don’t know how to get through this.” “I don’t know what will happen.” “I don’t know what will become of me.” “I don’t know if I can do this.” This is the day and hour about which no one knows.
The sun is no longer a light upon our path. The moon is no longer the nightlight in our world. The stars by which we oriented our life have fallen. The usual sources of illumination no longer shine and we can’t see. We’re in the dark and it feels as if all is lost.
It would be easy to believe that because we can’t see there is nothing to see, because we don’t know the way forward there is no way forward, and because we can’t control our future there is no future. To fall into those beliefs is to fall asleep, the very thing Jesus tells us not to do.
“Keep alert,” “be on the watch,” “keep awake,” Jesus says. Why would Jesus says this unless the darkness holds hope and a promise that we can never see by the light of day?
What if darkness is not an enemy to be feared? What if darkness is a friend and a teacher giving us night vision? What if darkness is not the end? What if darkness is a new beginning? What if darkness is giving us “a horizon further than [we] can see” (Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” River Flow, 348) and offering possibilities we never imagined or dreamed of?
I’m asking you and myself to reconsider our relationship with darkness. I’m asking us to let go of our childhood fears of the dark. I am asking us to remember and trust that all new life emerges from the dark: the plant from the dark earth, the newborn from the dark womb, and Jesus from the dark tomb. I’m asking us to consider the darkness as the envelope that holds God’s promissory note to you and me.
That’s our Advent work: to befriend and enter the darkness – the darkness of growth, maturity, and change; the darkness of healing, hope, and faith. It’s hard work and I know I am asking a lot. But here’s why I’m asking:
- “Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21);
- “Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would reside in thick darkness’” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:1); and
- “In the beginning when God created … darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1).
Thick darkness is the place of God’s presence, not God’s absence. The darkness is the beginning and origin of creation, not the end of the world. Why would we ever close our eyes to or turn away from that?