Last Sunday John and I worshipped in our “second favorite church,” St. Mary the Virgin located near New York’s Times Square. This church is a feast for the senses – when you enter you are struck by the expansive space, votive candles flickering at the feet of life-sized statues of saints, the lingering aroma and mists of incense, and the muffled voices and footsteps of visitors who come to explore this place or find a secluded spot to spend time in prayer.
During services, especially celebrations of the Solemn Mass, the cavernous building is filled with the sounds of exquisite organ music and the angelic voices of the choir drifting down from the balcony far above. Readings from Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, the ring of Sanctus bells, and the chanting of liturgy reverberate all the way up to the azure vaulted ceiling adorned with gilt stars. Incense rolls in waves throughout the nave like a gently rising tide.
The doors of St. Mary’s remain open for 12 hours each day, and during this time the pews in the back of the church are occupied by homeless people, mostly men, who come in and find a safe place where they can stretch out and sleep, or just sit silently finding temporary respite from the chaos of life on the street. During services, they remain in their pews, still as the nearby saints, seeming to somehow absorb the myriad sights, sounds, and smells of the extravagant ritual celebration. How do the men on the back rows experience these magnificent services that eclipse the otherwise quiet hours here? Something calls them here – of course there is the safety and warmth of a church that ministers to its homeless neighbors, but somehow, I imagine they are also open to experience a unique in-breaking of God in this special place – whether the voices, the music, the mystical quality of the incense, or the retelling of the Good News of hope and healing offered by Jesus – something touches their hearts and calls them back.
And now on this Sunday, the first day in Advent we who are gathered in this place begin our journey of preparation for the birth of Jesus who we will recognize as God’s anointed one, God’s real presence in the world, who has come to reconcile God with God’s people. Yet the Gospel reading for this first Sunday is not anticipating Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem but rather pointing to the second coming of Christ. This end-times narrative can feel jarring, evoking a sense of anxiety at odds with the reflective serenity we hope to find during Advent.
It will be another week before we hear about John the Baptist’s prophecies proclaiming that God’s kingdom is coming near so we can begin in earnest to ready ourselves for the promise of the Nativity. For now, the lectionary proposes we spend some time exploring how we prepare for the second coming. The Gospel gives us some guidelines – we cannot know when this will occur, and should therefore remain awake, watchful and alert. And do what? Matthew is not very expansive on this point.
Paul’s words to the Romans help answer the question of how we go about preparation. The present moment is not a pause between the birth of Jesus and the return of Christ where God’s actions in the world have temporarily ceased. The inbreaking of God into our world continues uninterrupted, and we are called to participate in this ongoing activity.[i] Paul describes the nature of this action in the verses leading up to what we hear in today’s lesson, “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[ii]
Paul Achtemeier, professor emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary, asserts that the concept of love as used here should be understood as an action and not an emotion. He explains, “God loves us by doing something for our benefit, namely sending His Son to remove our sins. We know God loves us, therefore, not because of how he feels about us, but because of what he has done for us in Christ…. To love someone is actively to pursue that person’s good, however we may feel about him or her emotionally.”[iii]
In his letter, Paul goes on to encourage the Romans to choose to live in the light, as our loving God intends for us – actively sharing this love, this desire to do good for others through intentional engagement, and to shun the types of activities he associates with the darkness that produce strife and estrangement among people instead of fostering relationship.[iv]
In this time of preparation, we put on the armor of light – the Lord Jesus Christ himself -learning to love one another as he loved us and as we would like to be loved. We are to use the gift that Jesus gives to us when he lived among us and taught us that it is by loving each other that we live as God desires.
The reality is that loving our neighbors as ourselves can be extremely difficult, especially when we do not happen to like our neighbor very much. Christians have been struggling with living fully into this love of neighbor for two thousand years and we remain unable to love as fully and unconditionally as Christ loves us. But we have a God who offers us seemingly unlimited second chances, and Advent comes to us each year so that we can begin again the transformative work of learning to open our hearts more fully to one other.
Paul and Matthew share a sense of urgency in their directives – our preparation should commence now, not at some convenient point in the future when our schedules settle down and we find ourselves less distracted. There is something uniquely sublime in the season of Advent that keeps calling us to this very task of opening our hearts a little wider than the year before. If we can do this, we might be surprised by the beauty that surrounds us – the people whose paths we cross, generally without taking notice, the joy of watching children at play, the surprising response of a passerby when we smile and say “hello” to them, or the gratitude of a stranger struggling with packages in a busy parking lot whom we stop and assist.
Perhaps we can consider how to nurture within ourselves an inner sanctuary where we find respite from the chaos of our own lives. By resting here, we may become better able to absorb our experience of the in-breaking of God’s infinite love that we receive and share it abundantly with others in our midst, in this place, at this moment.
[i] Joanna M. Adams, “First Sunday of Advent Year A, Romans 13:11-14, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year A: Volume 1 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 15, 17.
[ii] Romans 13: 8-10 NRSV
[iii] Paul J. Achtemeier, “First Sunday of Advent Year A, Romans 13:11-14, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year A: Volume 1 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 17.
[iv] Patrick J. Howell, “First Sunday of Advent Year A, Romans 13:11-14, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year A: Volume 1 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 18.