The First Sunday of Advent
November 27th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, came to my mind this week as we said goodbye to one church year and hello to a new one.
The poem was written during a time of war, and is filled with religious meaning and reference, including this striking section from the middle.
For background, Eliot has been describing a wasteland in the preceding stanza, a “dead land” a “cactus land” and wonders if “death’s other kingdom” is like that land.
He then continues:
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
Eliot’s description may seem obscure, but for those of us who stand on the cusp of this new season of Advent…a season of expectation, preparation, and longing once more to see with eyes set aflame by the light of the world…it is filled with hope.
Those who know their Bible will remember the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, and the new life that sprang forth from a landscape of death.
God’s promise to Abraham, for descendants as numerous as the stars, is present, as well as mighty Samson’s broken donkey jaw bone, which he used to slay thousands of enemy Philistines.
The end of such vengeance and retribution is blindness in a hollow valley…a wasteland of separation where we all “grope together and avoid speech” but where isolation rules our shadow existence.
Eliot then transitions to hope in the poem, saying that the sightless eyes remain unseeing “unless the eyes reappear as the perpetual star, multifoliate rose of death’s twilight kingdom.”
If we are to see at all, it will be because of the star of hope that illuminates us once more, the light that comes from the rose…symbol for Mary and the Saints in Dante’s Paradiso…the light of the world which will grow to destroy death and its twilight kingdom forever.
For that world to fully enter in, the present one has to give way…has to become “empty”…and this process is less reminiscent of a bang, and more like the whimper of a new born babe.
For the faithful, the beginning of the church year begins with apocalypse, and texts that encourage us to be prepared and ready for the coming of God once more.
The reason I felt called to share Eliot’s poem today is because so often it can feel like the world in which we live is a hollow one…a world the promises of old have not yet reached…a world that seems destined for further separation rather than unity.
The news is filled with stories of wars and political fallout, and for all the benefits it brings, technology can often place us in narrow interest groups and consign us to silos that serve as echo chambers for our beliefs instead of drawing us into dialogue with each other.
Such a world feels like it is teetering on the precipice of destruction, either through the slow but seemingly inevitable march toward an unsustainable planet, or the bang of a nuclear holocaust.
How do we move forward in such a world? How do we sing our songs in this foreign land when we have become infected by its hollowness?
In the first place, we people of faith must be always expecting the coming of the kingdom, and preparing for its coming by planting seeds now that will one day, with much watering and tending, grow to produce the fruits of the reign of God.
Matthew’s Gospel today has often been used by short-sighted brothers and sisters to support their theory that the coming of the kingdom is about God “leaving behind” people, usually the ones with whom they disagree and whom they condemn as sinful and unworthy of the kingdom.
Such a view, although prevalent and turned into a lucrative book series, misses the point of the kingdom for which we keep watch this Advent.
God’s coming is not about creating more division in a world already hobbled and rife with it, but instead about a persistent march toward deeper and more genuine relationship.
The animals that entered Noah’s ark did so two by two…in the most basic form of relationship…and the point of two being in the field and one being taken is not about separating the two as much as it is about showing that God does not call just one type of person into the kingdom, but all sorts of people, from all sorts of professions, and all sorts of situations.
In fact, nothing separates the two in the field and the two women grinding meal…the text doesn’t say whether being taken or being left behind is good or bad.
What the text does say is that all who hear this should take the sudden change that comes over these people as an admonition to always be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom…for anytime is the right time for the kingdom to break into the midst of our daily lives.
I believe, just like TS Eliot, that the way the world ends is not with a bang…one end of time final day of reckoning, destruction and judgement, but with a whimper…with the coming of a Christ child whose light sometimes startlingly and sometimes slowly, penetrates our lives and wakes us up to salvation and the reality that the kingdom for which we long and strive is already among us, if we have but the eyes to see it.
Therefore, there is no time to spend in judging whether the one in the field or the one grinding meal is more or less worthy than me…rather our time should be spent on preparing the soil of our hearts for planting…for caring for the seeds God has already gracefully implanted within us…and for watering the roots, pruning the branches, and harvesting together the fruits of the tree of life that we know through Christ.
If you give your time and energy toward that great work…toward that kind of readiness and preparation…the marvelous truth is that the second coming will become more and more a part of your daily reality, rather than just some vague potential terminal endpoint in the future.
We prepare in this season of Advent, by letting the light of Christ shine into the darkness of our hearts and our world…and we become lights for others by serving, by giving, and by showing the hollow world just how much life comes from relationship, even though it takes effort and will to remain bound together in a world that so often chooses the ease of separation and division.
We begin the church year accepting the call to “wake up” to what God is doing in our lives and this world…training our eyes to receive more light and vision so that even the subtle movements of the spirit do not pass us by.
We say goodbye and good riddance to the world that is ending…the one of vengeance and isolation…the one that is divided into enemies and allies…the one that asks us to spend our time, money and energy on judgment and division instead of supporting the union of divine communion.
This Advent, I ask you to open your ears, your eyes, and your minds to witness the kingdom’s inbreaking once more.
I ask you to direct your efforts toward building up and sharing the fruits of the kingdom…behaving and treating others as if the time has already come.
Be watchful for the light of the world in the small moments of each day, and intentional about listening for the whimper of that new world so that you may join with Mary and all the saints in helping bring that world into being.
If you do, your emptiness will be transformed to fullness, and your darkness into light.
And you won’t ever have to worry about being left behind…because God will be your constant companion, no matter what may befall you in this life or in the age to come.