“Where the Mystery of God and Life Meet”
First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2022
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. ***
“But about that day and hour no one knows,” Jesus says.
We hear those words and cannot help but remember days and hours about which we did not or could not know:
The day and hour you became a parent for the first time;
The day and hour your child called to tell you there was going to be a wedding;
The day and hour a judge decreed that the divorce was final;
The day and hour you got the job you dearly wanted;
The day and hour your dear friend called and told you she had cancer;
The day and hour you buried a spouse, a parent, a child;
The day and hour you felt lost and confused in a life in which you had everything you 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 and not so good ways.
This is the start of Advent. The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “coming.”
Advent speaks of a coming 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 flood that sweeps all away.
Every year the Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent sounds ominous and threatening. The readings are apocalyptic and we tend to hear them as warning about the end of the world. That is 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. He does not make a prediction. Rather, he speaks about how to live in the face of impermanence and change and everything in between.
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 have 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. There 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 do not know what to say and sometimes we do not 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.” The concept conveys the idea that a person’s potential can be defined by what he or she does not possess. 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. Negative capability is not grasping for certainty or jumping to ready-made answers simply to assuage the anxiety that arises in ambiguous and uncertain situations.
That is 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 cannot. I do not know. It is 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. With God along for every breath of every day.
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 do not want to miss a moment.
Starry Night on the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons