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Reflection: The First Sunday of Advent

From the holy gospel according to Mark 
Mark 13:24-37 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In those days, after that suffering, 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 ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.   It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 A Reflection by the College Chaplain

The jacaranda tree, with its purple-blue flowers appearing in Melbourne in early December, announces Advent with a burst of liturgical colour. These beautiful trees, scattered along the streets and in parks and gardens across Australia are impossible to miss. We recognise their timely announcement just as surely as the fig tree signalled the coming of summer to people in Jesus’s day.

Fig trees provided delicious fruit that could be eaten fresh from the tree or dried for use in winter. A poultice of figs was sometimes used as medicine. Figs are the first fruit mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. They became a symbol of peace, prosperity and God’s blessing. Sitting at home under one’s own vines and figs, everyone content and every community with all that they needed, became an image of the world ordered according to God’s intention. A withered fig tree symbolised God’s judgement on Israel’s failure to live up to God’s purposes for them.

When Jesus told his followers to watch for signs of God’s coming just as they watch for the fig tree to herald summer, he was inviting them, and inviting us, to be attentive and patient. We can no more force God’s timetable than we can turn autumn leaves into spring blossom. The growth of God’s kingdom is slow. The action of God’s Spirit in us and around us is seen only by those with eyes to see. It is noticed only be those who are watching. This year we have learnt the hard way just how little ultimate control we have. We have discovered how valuable it can be to slow down, let go what is unnecessary, and pay attention to what really matters.

Advent is a time for waiting and watching, a time for allowing quiet, and even silence to do its work in stilling the thousand distractions we can readily find. It is a time to allow God to show us what is essential and what is not. It is an active waiting. It is a revolutionary patience that does not turn a blind eye to wrong and injustice, in ourselves or around us, but acts to bring God’s judgment, that is to say, God’s perspective to those who are acting unjustly.

Waiting patiently is the foundation of the spiritual life, and the meaning is in the waiting… for in waiting and watching we learn, we become practiced in discerning what is of God and what is not.  We need companions on the way who watch and wait with us. No one can be a Christian on their own. That is why we are called into community; that is why we have longed to be together even when staying apart for a time was the best way to the future.

The challenge of this short season of Advent is to continue to slow down as we have for most of this year. It is an invitation to open ourselves to God and to each other so that we are not caught unawares when God turns up on the doorstep of our hearts.

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent
from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent from Opening Prayers. Collects in Contemporary Language.

Rend the heavens and come down, O God of the ages! Rouse us from sleep, deliver us from our heedless ways, and form in us a watchful people, that at the advent of your Son, he may find us doing what is right, mindful of all you command. Grant this through him whose coming is certain, who day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Poem: December Humbug by Jim McPherson

December’s wild collective madness strikes!

We all submit like slaves to Santa’s lash

and with our hearts and minds and credit cards

crown Santa as de facto Season King.

Remote from human suffering at the Pole,

he speaks to those who dream of better things

beyond injustice misery and toil

to offer tinsel hope and brittle joy:

“Just come to me, and I will bring relief ‑

my cargo cult will save you from your grief.”

I cannot soil the Incarnation’s gift

with Santa’s baubles or his sugared grift.

Give me the God whose feet have touched the ground

and walked with us as human as ourselves

to celebrate our joys and share our pain;

who’s borne injustice hunger and fatigue

and who, foreswearing all escape, endured

our human death; and Death’s defeat secured.

December’s now the torment of my year;

while Santa’s bogus claims assault my ears

the One we fete, who lived our living’s ills,

is trampled in the rush for happy pills.

Jim McPherson is a retired Anglican priest living in Queensland.  He is a former Principal of St Francis’ Theological College, Brisbane. This poem was originally published in To Tease Our Knowing. Reproduced by permission of the author.

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