When the Dawn Comes

There’s a seeming contradiction in our tradition of Advent. On the one hand, it’s a time of waiting patiently in the darkness of life for the beautiful in-breaking of God, in the coming of Jesus: We as a people living in darkness wait eagerly to see the Great Light. Yet at the same time, it reminds us that we wait, not as children impatiently waiting for Christmas morning, but more like their parents, who spend the night busily preparing for it. The coming dawn is a blessing for sure, but that blessing is double edged. The Vigil prayers, and Jesus’ own parables, ask us over and over again: Are we ready for what the day will bring?

Meditating on that awesome day, O my soul, watch!
Keep your lamp alight and filled with oil.
For you do not know when the voice will come to you saying:
“Behold the bridegroom!”
Watch, therefore, my soul
Lest you fall asleep and be left outside knocking as the five virgins;
But wakefully watch, that you may come to meet Christ with good oil,
And He will bestow upon you the wedding chamber of his glory.
Amen.

Or,

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight
And blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching
But unworthy is the one whom he shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest you be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rise up, saying “Holy! Holy! Holy, are you O our God”

Both of these ancient Christian vigil prayers draw their imagery from the Parable of the Virgins. While this Gospel isn’t assigned to Sundays in Advent, most of the Gospel readings during this season share its apocalyptic theme of readiness. This is because the flip side of waiting is preparation. In a way, Advent is sort of like the Vigil of the Church year: a season of preparation and anticipation for the coming of Jesus. What these prayers tell us, and what the apocalyptic edge of Advent tells us, is that the same is true for the coming of Christ. While we don’t know when Christ will come, we must be ready and prepared.

Light — truth — isn’t always welcome. Jesus said: “For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.” When light comes it reveals what’s really there, for good or bad. Are we ready for the Truth? Are we ready for what the dawn reveals? These are the questions our tradition puts to us this time of year.

At first glance it can seem like these images don’t fit together, that it’s unreasonable to hold the image of the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight or the Thief who comes in the night together with the image of the Christ-child in the manger at Bethlehem. But as Christians we can often make too strong a distinction between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, as though the first coming was all about love and grace and the second coming will be about judgment. I think this is unhelpful: Christ always comes in judgment — he always comes in justice.

Christ’s first coming was a judgment just as much as his return will be; the news of Christ’s coming was a judgment upon everyone in the Christmas story, and really in all of the Gospels. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of a man named Simeon. He is called “just and devout” and the text tells us he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would see Israel’s saviour before he died. Upon seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple, Simeon says this:

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Lk 2.29ff)

The text goes on to say that Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, and tells Mary: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

“Destined for the fall and rising of many” and revealing “the thoughts of many hearts.” What a perfect distillation of Jesus’ life and death: Jesus was the light of God shining in his society and into the hearts of all around him, revealing what was there. Just think of the characters in the Christmas story: Jesus was a judgment on Mary: would she accept the burden and duty of this miracle? And on Joseph: would he see this baby as a miraculous sign of God’s presence, or as a sign of Mary’s infidelity? Mary and Joseph proved themselves to be ready and prepared, like the five virgins with full lamps. So too did the shepherds, who understood and acted on the angels’ message, despite their low standing in society. So too did the Magi, who proved to be ready despite being foreigners and followers of foreign gods. Yet this same judgment looked very different on King Herod, for whom the Light of Christ was awful, and a threat. The same pattern played out throughout Jesus’ life: Jesus’ presence is always a judgment, always reveals what’s in the hearts of those around him. img_6093And the same is true today. Christ always comes in judgment. But his judgment is justice, the judgment of love, of mercy, and of grace. As the prophet Micah says: what does the Lord require of you? But to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with your God.

And so, as we prepare to meet the child of Bethlehem this Advent season, we are also called once again to prepare ourselves to really meet him. So that when the light of Christ shines upon our own hearts we may be revealed to be ready, to be lovers of mercy, doers of justice, and humble companions of God.

One of my favorite Advent carols is “People Look East.” This carol beautifully captures the sense of both anticipation and preparation of the season: from our preparing our homes for guests, to the earth giving its nutrients to seeds, to angels getting ready to announce the birth of Jesus. And so, as I end this reflection, I’d like to leave you with its words, and encourage us all to be mindful of this season of Advent and prepare our hearts for Christ’s judgment of Love and Grace.

People Look East

  1. People, look east. The time is near
    Of the crowning of the year.
    Make your house fair as you are able,
    Trim the hearth and set the table.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the guest, is on the way.
  2. Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
    One more seed is planted there:
    Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
    That in course the flower may flourish.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the rose, is on the way.
  3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
    Guard the nest that must be filled.
    Even the hour when wings are frozen
    God for fledging time has chosen.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the bird, is on the way.
  4. Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
    One more light the bowl shall brim,
    Shining beyond the frosty weather,
    Bright as sun and moon together.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the star, is on the way.
  5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
    Christ who brings new life to earth.
    Set every peak and valley humming
    With the word, the Lord is coming.
    People, look east and sing today:
    Love, the Lord, is on the way.

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