Could the news get any worse? We are faced with a relentless cycle of stories that break our hearts and that bear witness to the brokenness of humanity and the brokenness of our world. What’s more, in the face of these crises—the global climate crisis, the crisis of political legitimacy that so many nations and peoples are confronting, beginning with our own, instead of coming together to work on solutions, we are growing more divided. Our differences seem to be widening even as things seem to be getting worse.
Among those divisions, one of the most interesting to me is the generational conflict that seems to be growing. Younger generations are becoming more resentful, more angry at their elders. And the target of much of that anger is my generation—the baby boomers. Well, we sure have messed things up, haven’t we? On our watch, warnings about global warming have become climate catastrophe; economic inequality has increased to levels not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century; our political system, not just in this country, but worldwide, seems to be nearing total collapse with authoritarianism, nationalism, and racism on the rise.
Generational resentment is pervasive, as millennials despair of the mess they are inheriting from us and at our feeble efforts to defend ourselves and criticize them—OK Boomer; the derisive response of millennials and Generation Z folk to all of those complaints about the warped values of the “youth” has become a meme, and a political retort, as it points out the crisis we are living in, the relative lack of time we have to address those crises, and the political and cultural establishment, ie boomers, unwillingness to face up to the crises we are in.
It’s not just secular culture, it’s also in the church. An article several months ago lambasted “boomer religion” for contributing to the decline of Christianity. Not surprisingly, young Episcopalians I connect with on social media share that critique—from their perspective, Boomers abandoned traditional theology, orthodoxy, and the creeds, as well as traditional liturgy. Many of them despair of the future of the Episcopal Church as well as mainline Christianity in the US.
We’re here at this moment, with impeachment proceedings, rampant corruption, generational conflict, institutional collapse, and at the same time, the calendar of capitalism and American society has us preparing for holidays; expecting us to party like it’s 1999–. We are fighting with each other; we are fighting with ourselves, and as we fight, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. At its best, the holidays this year will be a temporary distraction from the disaster in which we live.
Ah, but we’re not there yet. The church has some business to take care of first, and it couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Christmas is still four weeks away, no matter how often you hear “It’s looking a lot like Christmas.” Today marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church’s year. The themes of Advent are strikingly different from the themes of the culture around us.
. “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light,…” Our collect, readings, and hymns strike very different notes from that of the world in which we live. Or perhaps, it’s better to say that Advent confronts us with the reality of the world in which we live.
Our culture may be focused on Christmas, but the church beckons us to reflect and prepare for not only Christ’s first coming but his second, in majesty, to judge the living in the dead. It’s a theme that’s been present in these last few weeks of the liturgical year, as we’ve heard from apocalyptic passages in the gospel of Luke, and pondered the meaning of the Reign of Christ or Christ the King. But now in Advent, our focus is more clearly on both of those comings, and as the people of God, the church, the body of Christ, we live in that tension between Christ’s first and second coming, for it is the place in which the church has always lived.
The church, the body of Christ, brought into existence by the incarnation, God becoming human, and by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the church looks back to that moment when all history changed, when God became one of us, and began that work of reconciling the world to God. In that ongoing act of reconciliation, we begin to experience the reign of God. But our experience of God’s reign, of God’s justice and righteousness is only partial, occurring in the midst of the evil and suffering in this world. And so we look ahead with hope, to that day when Christ comes again, when Isaiah’s vision is realized: when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Throughout human history and the history of the church, there have been times when things seemed so dire, when the world seemed to be coming to an end, times when faithful Christians were tempted by despair, and by the vain hope that Christ would come on a rescue mission and remove the faithful from all this. Now is such a time, at least for some Christians, as they read the signs of the times and look for evidence of the nearness of Christ’s coming. Others, in the midst of that suffering, think only of themselves and their pleasures, and as Jesus says in today’s gospel, were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, seemingly oblivious to the great drama of human suffering. We may be more like those of whom St. Paul writes in Romans. We spend our time “in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy…”
In today’s gospel reading, we see the gospel writer and Jesus addressing that great tension in our faith between the already of Jesus’ coming among us in the incarnation, and his coming again to judge and to make all things right. It is a tension that the church feels in different ways and with different intensity throughout history, but certainly it was acutely experienced in the community to which Matthew was writing in the last decades of the first century. The incarnation, the cross and resurrection lay decades in the past and the eager expectation of his coming in majesty faded with the passing of time.
Matthew wants to encourage the followers of Jesus, this new community to maintain their expectation, to continue to watch and wait. It is encouragement we need as well, as we struggle with the evil and suffering in the world. We may be tempted by despair; our hope may be dust and ashes; we may be paralyzed by fear. Just now, when all is lost, we need Advent’s reminder that Christ is coming. We need that admonition, “Keep awake! Be ready!” Jesus us bids us to pay attention, to remember his promise, to look for his coming. Jesus bids us to wait.
There’s a misconception here. We think of waiting as a nuisance, a waste of time. We think of waiting as passive. Is there anything so annoying as having to wait for a cashier to finish with a customer so she can check you out? Is there anything more frustrating than the long lines at cash registers during the holidays? When we wait like that, we distract ourselves with our phones.
But the waiting of the church is different. It is active, attentive. “Keep awake,” Jesus says. “Be ready, for you do not know the hour the Lord is coming.” Or as the great advent chorale we will sing proclaims, “Wake, awake, a voice astounds us.”
Living in the tension between the first and second coming means looking for signs of Christ’s presence among us, looking for signs of his coming. And those signs are all around us, if we only lift up our eyes and pay attention.
More than signs, Christ is already present among us. Matthew’s gospel ends with that great promise Jesus gave to his disciples before his departure: “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” We know that Christ is present, when the gospel is proclaimed. We know that Christ is present in the Eucharistic feast. We know that Christ is present, in us the body of Christ, gathered together around the altar.
But even as that presence nourishes us and gives us hope, still we wait, still we yearn for Christ’s coming, to make all things right. And so we wait, and watch, and pray. “Come, Lord Jesus!”