“You must be ready,” Jesus said (Matt. 24:44). How do you get ready for what you already have, for what’s already here? Do we even know what we’re getting ready for? Those are the questions of Advent.
All through the scriptures we hear echoes of God’s encouragement. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, [God says], plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). Being ready for “a future with hope” is what Advent is about.
Think about your greatest hope. In September, when I asked you to name your greatest need, your greatest hope, and your most urgent question, more than any other response, you expressed hope for peace: peace for the world; peace for your children and grandchildren; for an end to violence and poverty; for unity and understanding among earth’s people.
Your greatest hope is the hope of the ages. It’s the hope that filled people with joy when the angel announced that a savior had been born (Luke 2:8-11). It’s the hope that filled the political establishment with fear when a competing claim on the people’s allegiance arose (Matt. 2:3). It’s the hope that filled people with expectation when John called them to get ready for the fulfillment of God’s promise (Luke 3:3, 15). It’s the hope that filled our lives with peace when Jesus began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
“This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Your waiting is over, Jesus said when he began his work, and the relationship with God you’ve been waiting for is at hand (Mark 1:15). “I have answered you,” God said, “on a day of salvation I have helped you” (Isa. 49:8), and St. Paul assured us that “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2)! It’s time “to wake from sleep,” Paul said. “Be up and awake to what God is doing” (Rom. 13:11-12 NRSV, The Message).
So here we are, half-dreaming and half-awake, between two advents. There’s the first advent, the advent of God’s reconciling work, begun in Jesus of Nazareth. And there’s the next advent, the one we look forward to. But our scriptures never mention a second advent, a second coming. A dozen times they mention Christ coming again, but never do they associate a number with it. Christ is always returning, and returning, and returning, and never really leaving. Advent is not a time when we get ready for what’s coming; it’s a time when we learn to live with radical openness to what is already here and already ours.
Whenever anyone is in Christ, Paul wrote, “there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Whenever anyone is incorporated into the body of Christ, there creation is renewed. Whenever anyone is swept up as an agent of the reconciling work of God, there a new creation comes into being. Whenever any of us embodies God’s all-embracing, forgiving, reconciling love, there the first heaven and earth pass away, and a new Jerusalem comes out of heaven, where God makes a new home among us (Rev. 21:1-3).
Jesus said the Kingdom of God, the quality of life that is our greatest hope, is spread upon the earth, and people don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas, 113). It’s in our hands, and we fail to grasp it. We live and move and have our being in it (Acts 17:28) like a fish moves in the water, but we look for it in other circumstances or hope for it in another time. Often hoping for something can blind us to the reality that we already have what we hope for. Hoping for the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7) can keep us from recognizing the peace of God that is already ours.
So in Advent, and in any season, don’t be distracted by the hope of Christ’s return in glory. Don’t look for God’s peace and presence in other circumstances or in another time. Look for it here, all around you. Be ready to respond to Christ’s living presence among us, a presence that, while hidden, is nevertheless as real as can be. It’s a presence that asks us to empty ourselves of our notions of what that presence looks like, that asks us to surrender our favorite illusions of what Christ will be, so we can be met by the Christ who is with us.
Though it’s a little ahead of schedule, it’s time to hear again a letter written by Fra Giovanni Giocondo to a friend, Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, on Christmas Eve, 1513: “There is nothing I can give you which you have not got, but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see – and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!
“Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by the covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.
“Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty – beneath its covering – that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage, then, to claim it, that is all. But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are all pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home. And so, at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.” —Fra Giovanni Giocondo, letter to his friend, Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve, 1513.