The First Sunday of Advent 2020
I recently came across the title of a book by Walter Wink, a Biblical scholar in called Unmasking the Powers. The reference is to the principalities and powers of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I have not read it but the title gripped me – unmasking the powers. From my very early years, I have had this sense that there is much more than meets the eye. Darkness is not just flat darkness. It conceals a whole world. St Paul speaks about the powers in high places. Whoever they are, they are so encompassing that we do not see them – they are like the matrix. You see and feel within the matrix but you cannot get to see the matrix itself. The matrix itself is wrapped in darkness.
Jesus says Watch. He does not see. So the call is to go beyond the lights and glitter of the marketplace mall. They soothe but they also induce a false security. He says Watch because there is a darkness of a different sort. There are powers and principalities walking abroad. There is a battle going on. This is not peacetime and never has been since the Fall. St John brings this out in the Prologue – the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness is there waiting to devour the light that shines.
Advent has always had this quality of waiting in the darkness. Unfortunately today Advent has lost its tension. The tension between Advent and Christmas has been bridged by the so-called happy holidays shopping season. There is light everywhere but of a superficial kind and it blunts the darkness we should be aware of. To think at one time, Advent originated as 40 days of fasting in preparation for Christmas beginning with the feast of St Martin on November 12. Hence the need for Gaudete Sunday. To relieve the strain. But now Gaudete Sunday means lighting the pink candle.
Advent is about not so much looking at first things – the incarnation, but last things – the final coming of the Lord. It tells us the world is not enough. It does not satisfy. We must wait and watch for the final coming of the light because we are living without peace, in exile, in the land of our foes. I think Advent has lost its edge because it seems to be directly connected to Bethlehem. As I look back over my younger days I could never get enthusiastic about the creche. I milled around with the others admiring the creative efforts of the local artists but it never gripped me. The baby did nothing for me. I realize now why. Advent looks towards the final coming of the Lord when darkness will be put to flight, when happiness and rest and peace will be definitive. It is only in the light of the Second Coming that Bethlehem makes sense – it is the first installment of the promise. Then it is not just the sweet baby Jesus waiting to be admired. But the Lord who has parachuted into enemy territory, almost behind enemy lines when the dragon was not looking – so that He could begin to win over souls from the enemy one soul at a time and slowly push back the darkness, taking captive the powers and the principalities in the high places.
In such a context, brothers, watching will be painful Seeing is easy. You do not have to do much. You can be lazy. You can continue in the sloth of disobedience. But watching means tension. It means ripping off the bandaids in your own heart. The lies and subterfuges whereby we hide from the light. This is painful enough but furthermore, our eyes open and the pain of the world rushes in. We become sharers in God’s heartache as His creation turns rogue and ungrateful. I think of our first reading today. The prophet lived around 3000 years ago but you would be hard-pressed to find something so beautiful in all of literature. it is one of the most beautiful and heart-rending examples of what it means to watch, to be prophetic, to suffer with God’s heartache –
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways!
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
This is a call to us as monks. Monks have been traditionally known as watchmen – awake in the dark, contending with the dark, looking for the dawn. Advent is our season really even though St Benedict says our life should be a permanent Lent. But both go together. We have to maintain the tension, we have to live by faith, accept the boredom, the restlessness of not seeing but watching with no end in sight. Without this, the world will not open its pain to us. We will live at the shallow end of the pool. Without the tension, the frustration of peering in the darkness with nothing in sight and just dark faith lighting the way – without this, our eyes of the heart will never unmask the powers abroad. Their name is legion today. If we do not do it for the world, who will? I close with these lines from Blake ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.