I’ve been fascinated by the power of the season of Advent ever since I first encountered it 30 or 40 years ago. I grew up in a branch of Christianity that didn’t pay close attention to the liturgical year, at least not back then. We had Good Friday and Easter, of course, and Christmas but that was pretty much it. Our preparation for Christmas was the same as other Americans’ preparation for Christmas, buying trees and decorating them, Christmas cookies and other tasty items, shopping for presents and the like.
It wasn’t until I was in college, and especially later, as a seminary student and lay person in my mid twenties, that I first experienced the lectionary readings and hymns that are used in these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Coming at them as an adult, and as student of theology, the tone of the season had a powerful effect on me. It still does.
It’s not just that Advent is at least to some degree a penitential season. Here at Grace, we use the same liturgical color, violet that we use during Lent. But more than that, it’s the emphasis in the lectionary and hymnal. The focus is not just on the coming of Christ at Christmas, it has another focus on Christ’s Second Coming.
That’s clear from our readings. The portion of Isaiah that was read is a plea for God’s intervention in history. While it was written by an author who hoped that intervention would come soon, in his own lifetime, Christians have interpreted it and many similar passages from the Hebrew Bible as descriptions or predictions of the Second Coming.
The gospel reading from Mark is from the so-called “Little Apocalypse” chapter 13 of that gospel, which occurs during Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the last week of his life. In that way it connects with the readings we’ve been having from the Gospele of Matthew over the last months which come from Matthew’s treatment of the same material and same period of Jesus’ ministry.
It might be helpful to remind you of some of the important themes of Mark’s gospel as we begin this year of the lectionary cycle. While there continues to be scholarly debate about the relationship among the gospels, for over a century, the consensus has been that Mark was the first gospel to be written, around 70 CE. Mark is by far the shortest of the gospels and it’s unique in that it starts in media res, in the middle of the story, with Jesus’ baptism. There’s nothing about his birth or origins (although his mother, brothers and sisters do make an appearance) and it ends with the empty tomb. Originally, there were no stories of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. Those were added later. That doesn’t mean that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection—clearly he did. Rather, he wanted to tell a story with different emphases. As an aside, the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, knew the Gospel of Mark and used it, in addition to other sources, in telling their version of Jesus.
Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the most repeated words in the gospel is “immediately.” Everything seems rushed. He typically doesn’t take a lot of time to describe the settings or background. When the same story appears in all three synoptics, Mark’s version is almost always the briefest. I will have a great deal more to say about Mark’s perspective in the coming year. I encourage you, as I do each year, to take the opportunity to read the gospel in its entirety several times over the course of the year. It’s something I do as it helps me remember the overall story arc, as well helps to orient me when I get bogged down in the week-to-week lectionary.
We see Mark’s (oh, and by the way, the names of the gospels are traditional, very ancient from the 2nd century, but we actually don’t know who wrote them or where they wrote them) overarching perspective even here in this “Little Apocalypse.” We call it an apocalypse because it reflects that type of literature and world view, describing God’s intervention in history. Apocalyptic is dualistic—it presupposes a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It is pessimistic about the present and immediate future. Things are really bad and they are going to get even worse before they get better. And it assumes that the world as we know it is about to end.
Now what’s interesting about Mark’s version of apocalyptic is that while many of these elements are prominent, signs of the second coming, for example, other aspects of apocalyptic are notably absent—the final judgment isn’t mentioned, and the overall message seems not to be that the Second Coming is imminent, but that it as been delayed, no one knows when it might come, so it’s important to stay awake, be alert, watch.
In that respect, Mark’s message is consistent with what we read from Matthew over the last few weeks. But there’s something else that I find quite intriguing. At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:
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, (Mk13:35)
Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.
What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.
But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans.
But I think Jesus’ admonition in Mark is sage advice for us this Advent. Keep Watch! Be Alert! I talked briefly last Sunday about looking for signs of Christ’s coming among us. I think that’s part of Mark’s message here.
But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God.
For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified.
We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate.
But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty.
For us in this season, let us keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence, be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days.