First Sunday of Advent, Year B
29 November 2020
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
My first car wasn’t actually mine. It belonged to both me and to my brother.
The thing was that we didn’t live in the same place, not even the same town. We were about four hours away from each other.
Our arrangement was that each of us would have it for a couple of months. It was a great way to own a car but not to get used to its convenience.
During the first week of October 1989 we drove from Heidelberg to Göttingen, it must have been my brother’s turn. The route took us close enough to the border between East and West Germany that we were able to listen to East German radio. I was interested because I had never lived close enough to the border to have been able to receive East German radio or television signals.
This was the time of regular demonstrations against the East German regime, first in Leipzig and then all over East Germany. It was the time when many East Germans had sought asylum in the West German embassies of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. And that year and that week were also the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany.
What we heard on the radio was a very long speech by the General Secretary (Erich Honecker). But the speech was not only a long list of socialist principles and the regime’s accomplishments, it also utterly ignored the rapid disintegration of the state the General Secretary described. Speech and reality were two entirely different things. I think we listened to maybe 30 minutes of the speech. It was all we could handle.
These were, of course, also the days of Perestroika, Glasnost, and Demokratizatsiya, the catch words for Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program.
Gorbachev visited East Germany for the festivities and at a press conference during his visit, his foreign affairs spokesperson Gennadi Gerasimov, when asked about the state of disintegration of East Germany, famously said, ‘life punishes those who come too late.’ Less than two weeks later Honecker was ousted and 16 days after that the Berlin wall came down.
When Jesus calls on us to be awake and alert, to understand the signs of the times, he is telling us not to bet on the wrong horse, for life punishes those who come late.
Jesus inaugurates a new reign and this new reign requires a paradigm shift. It requires us to value what is disregarded in the world, and disregard what is valued. Mary will sing about this on her visit to her cousin Elisabeth.
Jesus values the least, the last the lonely, the forgotten, and – as Robert Farrar Capon said – the dead.
Our values have shifted. Forgiveness trumps retribution, weakness trumps power, love is stronger than hate.
And it is love that changes things. Étienne Gilson contends that for Christians, the universe is most simply “a sum total of creatures owing their existence to an act of love”—the act of a creator who, “being charity…lives by charity.” Gilson imagines love flowing through the universe “like the life-giving blood through the body.”1
When Jesus calls us to be awake in order for us not to be caught off guard when the master returns, is not about switching sides to preserve one’s privileges, as people have attempted from time immemorial, “The king is dead. Long live the king,” but to be part of God’s reign of love in which the world is turned upside down.
Mark 13 is often understood as to be speaking about the return of Jesus, the second coming, and how to live in that expectation.
But I think it is reasonable to believe that the words of Mark 13 do not assume the absence but the presence of Jesus, that they not only know about his suffering and death, but also see his suffering and death on the cross as the inauguration of his reign.
The three ‘predictions’ of the Son of Man’s advent parallel the three ‘portents’ of the Human One’s death at the hands of the authorities… they … assert that someone “will see” this spectacle: the disciples, the powers, and the Sanhedrin, respectively. … “some of the disciples” (15:40) and the authorities (15:31) do in fact “see” the crucifixion of Jesus … Do the powers witness it as well? As Jesus hangs on the cross, at least one of the cosmic signs of 13:24 is indeed realized: “There was darkness over the whole land” (15:33 …).
And so the Son of Man’s death and his revelation “in power and glory” are the same moment. It is through his demonstration of the nonviolent power of the cross that the powers are overthrown.2
That means that the reign of Christ, which we celebrate on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, is not far off but is now, in our lifetime and – by the help of the Holy Spirit – in our lives.
Coming back to, life punishes those who come too late, the one obvious connection I could not help but make – no matter how much I tried not to – is the reality of global warming. We may live in denial about it, we may rationalize it, but for the sake of my children, I pray that they not be punished for my sins. This may be where Gerasimov’s dictum no longer works, for in the context of our environmental sins, it will not only be us but especially our children who will be punished for our tardiness.
This advent, may we not only pray for God’s reign but also acknowledge it. It is a good and hopeful thing, like the tender twigs and leaves of the fig tree.
1in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, quoted in Reign of Love – The Fiction of Wendell Berry, Eric Miller, Commonweal, 2 January 2019, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/reign-love
2See “Say to this Mountain” – Mark’s Story of Discipleship, 1996 Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books