At the time of the economic crash there were five children, all girls—Jeanne was the oldest at 9 and Beatrice was just a newborn. The family lived in a four-room apartment that had no central heating and the refrigerator was an icebox on the back porch that had to be padlocked at night so that the other poor wouldn’t steal their food while they slept. There was no work available anywhere. The parents cashed-in their small insurance policies and sold the few pieces of gold jewelry they owned just to buy groceries. Whatever clothes they had had been outgrown by someone else and shoes were often the wrong size. The gas and electric bills weren’t paid and they were forced to use a kerosene lantern to see by night.
On the coldest nights of winter, they all slept in the kitchen around the stove, the only source of heat. Out of sheer desperation they sought public relief. And before welfare could be collected, an agent visited their apartment and opened all the cupboards and bureau drawers to determine if they were destitute . . . and they were. Christmas that year was homemade – old toys and dolls refurbished and doll clothes sewn from scraps.
They waited and waited for the worst to be over. It wasn’t the end of the world, it just seemed like it.
Sometimes life feels like the world is shattering and collapsing and there are people who long for the end of the world . . . as they know it. Many of us have experienced this kind of world and understand what our final end might be like. When hope is all but exhausted and we look around and see that everything still seems normal, but the world has stopped for us. When the small shadow appears on an x-ray after years of remission; when we’re on the verge of losing our home because the bank says, “time’s up;” when we wait for the doctor to call on that blood test that has to be done every six months; when we wait in anguish for the sound of the car pulling in the driveway when our seventeen-year-old son is hours late getting home.
Not all waiting is unnerving and fearful. Sometimes we wait in joyful hope and expectation—for a pregnancy to end and labor to begin; for the grandparents’ to arrive on their annual vacation visit; for Christmas morning after weeks of eagerness and excitement. But wait we must—it seems so unavoidable in this life. And none of us waits very well. Whether it’s standing in line at the bank or waiting for winter to end and spring to begin, waiting has a way of taking hold of us and demanding all our attention—it tests our patience and can sometimes feel like solitary confinement. We do anything to avoid it and fill our lives with great amounts of activity so that we don’t have to think about it. We hurry through life, and we fret and worry if we’re doing enough, and . . . all the while we’re waiting.
Today begins our Advent waiting—a four-week-long marathon of sprinting breathlessly to the Christmas finish line. Even as we do so, the days grow shorter, the darkness grows longer, and nighttime takes over—there is a sense of losing what precious little time we have. And into our stressful and anxiety-filled lives, Jesus issues a stern warning in the most disturbing language striking fear in our hearts—“on earth nations will be in dismay . . . People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming . . . Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength . . .” (Pause) Few of us take these words seriously. Maybe those who first heard them, who were enduring terrible suffering and wanted to know when the world was coming to an end, but even they grew weary of waiting and wondered if these things would ever come to pass. The truth is we all wait for Christ to return; we all believe that God keeps his promises . . . just not in our lifetime.
So maybe this is not about earthquakes, Category 5 hurricanes, raging wild fires, unrelenting rain and floods, and the world coming to an end. Maybe this is not about looking up at the heavens for Christ coming in a cloud, but redemption and promises kept. Maybe this is not about what Christ will do and when he’ll do it, but about what we should be doing right here and now. And maybe this is not about being alert and keeping our eyes open for what will happen in the future but about finally seeing what is already right in front of us.
Advent is a gift, a precious gift of time to straighten out what is not yet right; to overcome that one struggle, that one area of darkness—to heal what we’ve broken, to forgive, to be less addicted, to be more chaste, to be more generous, to bring Christ back into our lives as if this Advent were our very last Advent. It’s a time to interrupt our Christmas marathon and look into our lives no matter how shattered or wonderful they may be, to find Christ with us. Christ who once came. Christ who comes to us in the broken places where we know we can’t make it on our own. Christ who comes to us in those moments when we look beyond our own needs, to see the needs of others.
Time passes for all of us, no matter how quickly or how slowly that may be happening, and we wait knowing that the world can end for each of us at any time when we will come face-to-face with Christ. We wait for him who keeps his promises and we dare not be caught by surprise. So, how will we wait? How will we use the time we’ve been given this Advent?
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Bergant, Dianne and Richard Fragomeni. Preaching the New Lectionary, Year C. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000.
Buetow, Harold A. Ode To Joy. Staten Island: Alba House, 1997.
First Impressions http://www.preacherexchange.com/
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Bread of Angels. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997.
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