I’m not talking about heaven or hell. Those terms have been rendered meaningless by thousands of years of misuse. I mean, what direction is your life taking? I think it’s particularly meaningful to ask that question on the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin a whole new liturgical cycle.
Let’s talk about that for a moment, shall we? At the end of every November, we revisit the liturgical season of Advent, leading to the celebration of Christmas and the Epiphany, which, in turn, gives way to Lent, then Easter, then the Ascension and Pentecost. After another few months, we wind up back here again: another boring liturgical year. The liturgical renewal in the 1960s attempted to break the monotony by introducing three “cycles” of gospel readings. Cycle A reads from the gospel of Saint Matthew, Cycle B—which we just completed—reads from the gospel of Saint Mark, and now, with Cycle C, we read from the gospel of Saint Luke. That does seem to introduce a little variety into our liturgical year…until we realize that, in November of next year, we’ll start over with Cycle A. The liturgical year, like the calendar year, winds up following the same celestial movements: the rotation of the earth, the orbit of the moon, and the orbit of the earth around the sun. We just keep going around.
Was the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes right when he wrote: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun?” [1:9] Do we just keep going over the same material again and again, repeating the same mistakes over and over, learning the same lessons, time and time again? Are growth and advancement merely an illusion? Some would suggest that not even the passage from birth to death is a vector with a direction and purpose, but that, beyond death, there’s another birth and we get to do it all over again. Can you feel the oppressive ponderousness of that worldview? What kind of cruel deity would condemn all of creation to inescapable repetition?
Fortunately, that’s not the message of the gospels, nor is it what we as Christians believe. In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the Day of the Lord—the Day of Yahweh—that we spoke about two weeks ago. If you remember, that is the day when Yahweh God summons the heavenly army—the sun, the moon, and the stars—into battle. It’s a time of trial, a time of difficulty, a time of adversity, and a fearful time. Only Luke adds the psychological dimension to the Day of Yahweh, saying, “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.” Into that tribulation comes the Son of Man, bringing to light the secrets of each person’s heart. God’s judgment is never a surprise. It’s only a revelation of what’s already there, laid bare by adversity.
There’s nothing eternal in the universe. The universe itself is expanding, and its expansion is accelerating. The universe is rushing headlong into oblivion. Even the earth, the moon, and the sun are not immune. The earth’s rotation is slowing down. The moon’s orbit is drifting farther and farther away. The sun is chewing through its nuclear fuel at a tremendous rate. Eventually, all of that will be gone. All of creation is subject to futility [Romans 8:20] …all, that is, except you. In a seemingly meaningless universe, your life provides it with meaning and direction.
We like to think of ourselves as onlookers—impartial observers of the universe in motion. But no. We are not spectators, but participants. We are co-creators of the universe we observe. We are not innocent bystanders, but accessories to the evolution of the universe. Even Saint Paul wrote, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now. And not only that, but also, we, ourselves, having the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons [and daughters] and the redemption of our bodies.” [Romans 8:22-23]
Today’s gospel tells us that life is neither eternal repetition nor meaningless futility. Our life—indeed, all life and the conscious universe as a whole—has a goal. We are moving toward something. The Greek Christians called it the Parousia. As usual, we’ve mistranslated it. Some refer to it as the “second coming.” But, if we take the word apart, we can find its deeper, more accurate meaning. “Ousia” comes from the verb “to be,” and means “being” or “presence.” It is preceded by the preposition “para” meaning “beside” or “beyond.” So, Parousia has the sense of a deeper existence. This is what Saint Paul is getting at when he writes, “Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” [Colossians 3:11] The Parousia of Christ includes us—all of us. It looks toward the future but encompasses the past and the present: “the God who was, who is and is to come.” [Revelation 1:8]
So, what can we say about the seemingly endless repetitions we seem to be stuck in? We get up, we pray, we wash, we eat, we work, we go back to bed, day after day. The seasons change: winter, spring, summer, fall, and back again. Things are born, things grow, things die, and more things take their places. We even repeat the same prayers every day, liturgy after liturgy. All that is true. But consider this: how often can you hear the words, “I love you” before you get bored of it? Ten times? A thousand times? Isn’t it different every time you hear it? Aren’t you different each time? Aren’t they different each time?
This is how the spiritual life works. Imagine, if you will, a spring—like the spring in a ballpoint pen. Hold it up in front of your eyes and look down the length of it. What shape do you see? Now roll it between your fingers. See how it seems to be just going around and around? That’s how life and prayer feel very often. Now turn the spring and hold it straight up and down. Then twist it again, trying to stare at one spot. See how, each time it goes around, the spot you’re staring at moves up or down, depending on which way you turn it?
That’s a fairly accurate image of life—and your spiritual life, as well. How you understand it is all a matter of your perspective. It may seem like you’re covering the same territory over and over again, but though you may not realize it, each time you do, it’s at a different level. That’s the lesson of Advent and the lesson of today’s gospel. We’re starting all over again, but we’re not at the same place we were when we started last year. It’s new territory. It’s different. If we give in to the temptation to say, “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt,” we’re going to be unpleasantly surprised. You’ve never been here before. Today is a new challenge. Jesus says, “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength [to endure] the tribulations that are [to come] and to stand before the Son of Man” with the knowledge and conviction that you’ve given this day your very best. The Day of Yahweh is coming, but the Day of Yahweh has already come. Today is the Day of Yahweh.