In my beginning is my end In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
So writes TS Eliot in the second of his “Four Quartets,” East Coker. In my beginning is my end. Eliot was trying to reconnect with his hometown during a period of creative dryness and horror between the two world wars. But he was also putting words to the dilemma of time in which we find ourselves through much of the Gospel of Mark, the dilemma of time that is Advent.
As Episcopalians, we often make much of the change in liturgical season. We change our clothes, we do something different with flowers and greens. We talk about our favorite church season or our least favorite. Our identity as a people is grounded in the calendar, that human construct of time, readings, and practices that move us through what some call the Incarnation Cycle. That time begins now, with this first Sunday of Advent.
In this season, we mark the passage of time like windows in an Advent calendar, moving closer each day to a particular moment, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, for some, the celebration of family, friends, or coworkers, for others, the celebration marked by decorations, parties, or carols. And we are waiting and wondering not just about a moment in time, but also wondering about the fullness of time, which we hear about in Advent hymns and readings, the time when thou long-expected Jesus will come and deliver us, free us from our sins and fears, and bring his gracious kingdom.
Jesus in today’s Gospel also has an acute sense of time, but not because it’s Advent. I don’t want to shock or offend anyone, but I don’t think Jesus cares about the church calendar. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning for us. This change in the season, this new page of our gospel book, invites us to pay attention to where we are in calendar time and in the fullness of time.
Mark writes with a sense of immediacy and urgency, during a time of enormous political strife, tension and recurring violence between militant Jewish nationalists and Roman imperial counterinsurgents. For Mark, the question was: how does a person of faith respond? How to we faithfully engage in growing political, economic, and military tension? Jesus’ response is both clear and perplexing: What I say to you, I say to all: keep awake.
What I say to you I say to all. Wait. Watch. Don’t believe everything you see and hear. Wait, with eagerness and alertness, for the fullness of time. It’s not time yet, but you need to be ready, all the time. Not today, not this week, maybe not even this month. But the world will be transformed and is being transformed. We can’t always see it. But keeping awake means we should always be looking for it.
Jesus quotes the prophet Daniel when he describes what we should be waiting for: the Son of Man, coming in clouds with great power and glory. Mark’s Jesus uses that enigmatic and controversial term to describe himself. Son of Man has been translated as “the Human One” or “The Authentic Human Being”—neither of these terms is particularly satisfying to me. What is important on a day like today is the connection between the transformation of the world in Jesus Christ, and the fullest possible expression of humanity that we find in Jesus. I’d like to suggest that part of our Advent preparation for this long-expected Jesus is to attend to our humanity, and our response to the world around us.
Jesus came into a world where battles of good and evil raged around him. Political unrest, natural disasters, poverty, and human misery vied for his attention as they do for ours. What do we do?
We could hide out, on a mountaintop or in our own small world. Duck and cover, emotionally and maybe even literally. We could meet violence with violence, combat hatred and rage with hatred and rage of our own. There’s a lot of that out there, wars of words and wars of silence. Or we could proclaim, in how we move through the world, a different way to understand God’s presence breaking into the world.
And what I say to you, I say to all: keep awake. However we engage the world, we need to pay attention. The promise of Advent is that God’s time and our time converge. Listen for that. Pay attention.
Jesus stands, as he so often does, especially in Mark, on a threshold. Not just a threshold in space, but a threshold in time, between the time we keep and the time we await.
Late last week, I had a moment on the phone with a receptionist at a hair salon. Let’s just say that neither one of us were our best selves. We both failed at watching and waiting. We were both stuck in the moment. You might have had such a moment of your own in the past few weeks or, if you’re like me, even in the past few days. Then I sat in the chapel during those blissful minutes of silence before Evening Prayer, and I had a glimmer of the fullness of time, the time in which I do not get confused about who is judge, or who is justified.
Later in East Coker, TS Eliot writes: In my end is my beginning. This is true for us, too. Our confidence in God’s eventual redemptive, transformative action—the end which is our beginning—can perhaps inform our action in the world. Our joyful expectation of the full humanity in store for us can inform our smallest actions, day by day, drawing back the curtain on the time for which Jesus tells us to wait.