“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” – Matthew 24:42 (NRSV)
It seems to me that the older I get the more aware I am of just how much of my own understanding of life and faith is rooted in all the seemingly small moments that were part and parcel of my life growing up in Maine. Not that a theological education and many years spent in the vocation of pastoral ministry hasn’t been helpful in that regard (!), and I really do trust that my own spiritual growth hasn’t reached a place of arrested development; it’s just that in a great many matters as regards faith, it’s been the early lessons that continue to inform the newer insights.
As referenced in an earlier blogpost, a lot of those moments involved days spent with my father hunting in the northern Maine woods. We’d walk among acres of ridges and streams, black growth knolls and through what we used to refer to as “the pucker brush,” that is, the kind of dense undergrowth you regularly find when you find yourself off – way off – the beaten path. It sometimes made for some difficult travel, and it often seemed to me that we’d been walking for miles! In truth, however, weren’t always walking; in fact, sooner or later, we’d come across a fallen tree somewhere along the way, and brushing the snow off the moss, my father and I would sit down and “watch for signs,” sometimes for an hour or more at a time. Interestingly enough, even with all that walking, before long I’d get restless having to sit still, and wanted to start tramping through the woods again. But Dad would just sit there patiently, constantly scanning the horizon and paying close attention to every little movement and sound. In time, I came to realize just how very important “watching for signs” could be!
As inevitably the snow began to fall on those cold November mornings, the forest seemed silent and still and had a way of lulling you into a sense of easy (if chilly) complacency. In reality, however, there was all sorts of activity going around you – the quiet rustle of the few remaining leaves in the wind, the snap of a branch, the chattering of squirrels and field mice upset that you were invading their turf, and perhaps even the “flit” of a white tail in the distance! So as beautiful and as relaxing as those woods could be, if you weren’t constantly alert to what was going on around you, you could easily miss something important!
Every year as we enter the season of Advent, I’m reminded of those hours I spent “waiting and watching” for signs in the woods. This is a time of preparation for celebrating Christ’s birth, and moreover, a time for actively awaiting Christ’s return in glory. The very world “advent” means “coming,” and we are called as Christians to be an advent people, a people waiting and watching for signs of God’s coming into our lives and into the world.
Of course, along with Advent comes the world’s big run up to Christmas, and I don’t have to tell you just how busy things become. Even in the church, where we clergy-types routinely warn against such things, there is a real risk in becoming so caught up in the flurry of activity that comes with this time of year that we risk failing to be truly alert for signs of Christ’s coming that do exist in moments of quiet devotion, joyous sharing and caring outreach. It’s a hectic and exciting time for all of us, and as I hope you know by now, I do enjoy this season. But just as I learned sitting in that patch of Aroostook County Pucker Brush, we cannot allow ourselves to become so focused on getting to December 25th on time that we don’t take a few moments along the way to tend to the all-important matter of sitting. We need to purposefully pause to survey the horizon of our lives and the world so to take a glimpse of what’s out there!
Hundreds of years ago, the season of Advent was considered a “Winter Lent” by the early church, a solemn time of fasting and prayer, penitence and self-denial. Over time, the season has grown more celebratory, focused on a vision of joy that came in the birth of the Christ child, and will come in fullness in the kingdom of heaven; and that’s wonderful, given we live in a world that so often provides very little for which to rejoice. That having been said, however, a seriousness about this season is still appropriate, and just as in Lent we are called to deepen our relationship with Christ, so Advent should be a time to give thanks for what God has done for us so far, while awaiting with great hope and joy what God has yet to do.
My prayer for you on this first week of Advent is that you take the time to “watch for signs” of Emmanuel’s coming, and as you do, you’ll discover your senses coming alive with a new awareness of God’s continuing presence and movement in your life. I pray that with this kind of spiritual awakening, this Christmas you will arrive at the manger of Bethlehem truly graced with the joy of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry