Happy New Year! Advent marks the start of the church new year. Our 3 year lectionary covers a different gospel each year. It’s Year B now and we move to the gospel of Mark. We’re near the end of that gospel this morning in what is sometimes called ‘the little apocalypse’, or bible-speak for the end times.
At the beginning of chapter 13 from which our gospel reading comes today Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and it sounds as though the disciples, anyway, are doing some sightseeing. After all they didn’t get to Jerusalem very often. Look what massive stones! What magnificent buildings! they say (Mark 13.1) as they come out of the temple – the equivalent in their day of Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral. Jesus meanwhile is more focused on what lies ahead. Soon it will be Passover and what we now call Holy Week. He wants to prepare them for his death and all that will signify. He needs to change their perspective from that of a tourist to…what? That’s what I’d like to consider this morning. Shifting perspective is at the heart of Advent, which may be why the church’s year starts with what you might say is the end of the story in order to prepare us for the beginning which is Christmas.
It’s hard to change perspective. Recently we watched a programme about the ocean going liner The Queen Mary. She was huge. Turning her round was a challenge. There was at least one occasion when the ship was not turned round quickly enough to avoid slicing through a British cruiser, with disastrous consequences. Jesus needed to turn his disciples’ attention away from their immediate surroundings towards a bigger picture of what lay ahead. It may well have felt like trying to turn around a large ship. In Mark’s gospel the disciples are especially slow to catch on. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that they really entered into that bigger perspective he wanted them to have.
I want to suggest that Advent invites us to turn around and though it might feel like a slow, laborious process it’s well worth the effort, not just for ourselves, but for our country at a time when we are all working our way through the trauma of a pandemic.
There are some key words associated with Advent, one of which is repent. To repent means turning around, like that ocean going liner. If we’re turning around and away from something what are we turning towards? I like to think of repentance as an inward shift –a change in our order of priorities so that some things in life become more important, while others shrink into insignificance. The shift may be accompanied by sorrow over mistakes we have made or wrong turnings we have taken. This year, though, I’m more connecting repentance with a shift in how I view what’s going on around me, which is where another Advent word watch comes in. The disciples were looking at Jerusalem through the lens of a tourist. I have found myself looking at my surroundings through the lens of my health and the economy. That seems to be the perspective constantly set before me as I follow the news.
Jesus’ words to his disciples challenge that perspective because, using pictures and language from the Old Testament, he challenges what you might call a one dimensional view of human life. During Morning Prayer in the weeks leading up to Advent we’ve been reading the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation from the apocalyptic tradition in our scriptures; weird stuff, but essentially about reminding us that there is a bigger, heavenly perspective to events on earth and that since Christ, the key to it is Christ’s death and resurrection. Advent offers us a heavenly perspective. If I’m turning away from a fixation on my health and our economy I’m turning towards a far bigger picture of what human life is all about. To use bible shorthand – it’s also about heaven! I’m turning towards heaven.
If there really is a bigger dimension to life than what we can experience with our senses, if there is such a reality as heaven (which as I’ve just suggested is shorthand for a fuller dimension to which we have access though Christ’s death and resurrection) then what difference does that make to living right here and now, through a pandemic? In other words what difference might celebrating Advent make?
Those of you who have visited Iona or perhaps another holy place may have heard it described as a thin place, meaning that it feels as though any moment you might hear heavenly music, or catch a glimpse of Christ in glory, as though there is a very thin divider between earth and heaven, between a one dimensional life and a much fuller dimension of which we may catch the occasional glimmer.
Moving the perspective of our personal ocean going liner towards that larger dimension I’m calling heaven impacts a number of things. I want to mention just two. The first is around that word watch again. Jesus commands us to watch or keep alert, as it’s translated in one place in our reading and to stay awake. Now staying awake and being alert are things many of us know about at present – they are ways we react when we sense a threat ahead and they are a common response to trauma. I guess I’m not alone in not sleeping so well and sometimes feeling unhealthily alert too much of the time. I think it unlikely that Jesus is encouraging us to be alert in this way. It’s more that he’s saying whatever upheaval we are going through to watch out for where the divine is breaking through. Look out for it.
The picture that has come to me recently is that I, and perhaps we, are sometimes like blind Bartimaeus, sitting on his mat by the roadside, shouting out, ‘Jesus, help me!’ If I could see, all that would be in front of me would be lots of legs –those of the crowd all around Jesus. Nothing else. Then someone says, ‘Get up, stand up, Jesus is calling you’. This is risky. Leaving my begging mat, my one cloak, to move towards Jesus. But as I do so my perspective changes. Just standing, brings about a shift. I’m on a level with Jesus. He’s there in front of me, asking what I want. And now I really want to see.
In order to watch we may have to deal with what you might call spiritual lethargy. Remember we’re turning a big ship around. Like Bartimaeus we might need to shift position. Advent is a time for sharpening some of our spiritual practices, not so much in terms of trying harder, but being more willing to develop openness to what Paul describes as the height, depth and breadth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3.18-19). Where might we have experienced that during our day? Watch can be about taking time to reflect on the day’s events; watching for where God may be breaking through and inviting a new perspective.
The second thing that is impacted by having a heavenly perspective is our attitude to death. Here I’m greatly indebted to the Venerable Bede. (Or the Venemous Bede, as he is called in ‘1066 and All That’!) Yes, Covid does strange things to people…I’ve finally got round to reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People!
Reading Bede’s history is one of my ways of dealing with the pandemic. I find myself wanting to see how, if at all, what’s happening now connects with events in the past and might help me to make sense of them. The 8th century might seem like rather a long way back, but it does have some resonances with today.
Bede chronicles much of what are sometimes called the Dark Ages during and after the disintegration of the Roman empire and the departure of the Romans from Britain (mainly the 3rd to 8th centuries). He writes about wars, ethnic clashes, a major eclipse, food shortages, pandemics, splits in the church, and yet he does so with half an eye on that split in the clouds revealing Christ, the Son of Man, in his glory. Like other notable Northern Christians – Aidan, Hilda, Cuthbert, Columba – for Bede there was a thin veil between earth and that larger, heavenly dimension; whilst grieving over the disintegration of the order and stability provided by the Romans, as he watched and pondered over subsequent events he noted the gradual, but nevertheless inexorable growth of Christianity. For Bede this was like increasing light gradually consuming the darkness of paganism. The light was shining in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. (John 1. 5). He saw death and destruction, and at the same time more and more resurrection life. How hard to hold these opposites together! Yet, theologically, there can be no resurrection without Christ’s death.
Reading an account of Bede’s death in 735 AD written by someone who was with him I am challenged. Bede viewed death as the portal to a fuller, resurrection life. I wonder how many of us see death in that light? Or as ‘rising to the life immortal’ as the collect for Advent Sunday puts it? When he was close to death Bede was recorded as saying, ‘If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to him who created me out of nothing when I had no being….the time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in all his beauty’. Bede used to refer to death as our ‘heavenly birthday’. Bede had glimpsed that parting of the clouds and Christ’s glory in writing his ecclesiastical history, and in death he anticipates experiencing it fully.
As Christians we are not tourists as we look around our world, but those watching with compassionate alertness for signs of divine love at work. Eager to share it, and if necessary to suffer for it.
The apocalyptic strand in our tradition, though strange to our ears, offers hope. It not only reminds us of the bigger picture, but invites us to trust in the reality of it – of life after death, light not being overcome by darkness, of God’s faithfulness right to the end of our lives.