The cycles or rhythms of the natural world help us to orient to time, help us to take comfort in their continuity, and offer us a peaceful presence in which to engage our hope. As one season passes into another, we too are brought along with the world finding ourselves growing into maturity and change. We expect the seasons to change and we anticipate their arrival.
We delight in the changing of the leaves from lush green to golden hues of red and yellow. We know the season is coming to an end as we watch those same leaves fall and carpet our lawns with their colors that will soon fade to brown and nourish the earth. We take time to give thanks for all that the fall reminds us of—food, family and friends, and football. And then we begin to turn to our next season—the season of Elf on the Shelf, Christmas music on the radio, and shopping for toys and presents to give to our loved ones as well as those in need. In the secular world, before we even consider the natural world’s transition to winter, our transition to Christmas distracts us. We suffer that same distraction in the sacred world.
Before Christmas, we celebrate the season of Advent: the first season of the church year. It is a season of anticipation and expectation as we prepare for the Christ child to enter in and as we anticipate the second coming of Christ. It is a season of the already and the not yet. We fill our homes with Christmas trees and Crèches in expectation of that miraculous birth so many years ago, but too often forget the anticipation of waiting for Christ to come again.
Expectations are projections of our wants and desires. They are our strong beliefs that something will happen and that something is often an image of what we desire the future to look like. We set the table with the fine china and silver and slave over the turkey for hours with the expectation of a beautiful and delicious feast that everyone will appreciate and enjoy. We decorate our homes with greenery and candles, festive Santa Clauses, and Nativity scenes in expectation of a holly, jolly Christmas. And yet, even if those expectations are met, they do not give us lasting fulfillment or joy. They are temporary stopgaps in our thirst for a better world. And yet the satisfaction of that thirst is an inward satisfaction because expectations cause us to turn our focus inward on what we believe to be true in a given set of circumstances and that belief is typically defined by what we have observed about the world and the pre-conceived notions we carry. The problem is that since only one person holds those expectations, they are rarely met the way we thought they should be and thus often become disappointments. Further, those expectations become vehicles of blame directed toward others instead of accepting personal responsibility for holding unreasonable expectations in the first place. We become disappointed in others because they couldn’t live up to our expectations of them.
Anticipation is based on a hope that lies outside of our ability to control or direct circumstances. It is not focused on how our needs are met but instead celebrates our desires. Instead of projecting an outcome upon a certain event, anticipation waits eagerly for it to happen and is the process of imaginative speculation about the future. When a young couple has dated for a significant period of time and talked about spending the rest of their life together, the woman might anticipate a ring and a proposal and those hopes may well be realized. However, if she has particular expectations about how that proposal might play out, she may well find herself disappointed when the event actually happens and doesn’t match the image or preconceived notion of romance she might have expected. If you find in life you are often disappointed because your expectations are not being met, you might want to try anticipation instead.
Expectation and anticipation feel similar—they often arise from the deepest longings of our hearts. And though nuanced, the distinction is important. Expectations are internally focused demands we place on the world around us whereas anticipation takes its cues from the world around us and leads us to hopes rooted in greater possibilities than we can ask or imagine. In this season of Advent, it is important to recognize our expectations and invite some anticipation into our lives.
In the church world, we offer opportunities to grow in expectation and anticipation. We make Advent wreaths and light a candle to remind us that the light is coming into the world—marking those weeks with the addition of a second, third, and fourth candle until the day arrives and we light the Christmas candle as well. We have Advent calendars that count down the days to Christmas by opening doors to find little treats or surprises inside. We host the holy family on their journey to Bethlehem in observance of Los Posadas. We read scriptures of expectation and anticipation that Jesus will come again. We make an effort to remember that our faith and salvation is grounded in this most humble act of God made manifest as a human, born a babe in a manger, and that upon his return our salvation is made complete. And in our awareness of the activity of God, we are brought to our knees in the midst of our own humility that God might find us worthy of salvation.
Many of us believe our salvation is a distant hope—an eternal hope. That salvation is something we enter into after we die. It is an aspiration for our future selves. We rarely accept salvation as part of our current condition—as something we have already been granted and live into in the present life. We celebrate the incarnate Christ as a babe in a manger without realizing that this salvific act brings to us salvation in the flesh and blood and bone of our earthly selves—not just the salvation of our spiritual souls.
In anticipation of the coming of the Son of Man, we do ourselves no favor in outlining our expectations of salvation as a future consequence. Matthew tells us this morning that when the Son of Man returns it will be in the context of the Flood—“two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Though the popular concept of being “left behind” has defined the expectation that the one taken is saved, if we read and understand Matthew in light of the flood, we might do better to understand that it is the one left who is ushered into the Kingdom of God. In the story of Noah, it is those who are left behind that are saved. Everyone else is lost having been swept away by the chaotic waters of the flood. If it is Noah and his family that are the recipients of salvation and Jesus offers this warning to his disciples regarding salvation, then it is possible that the theology of rapture may well be misguided. Instead of being taken, we might prefer to be left behind to inherit a kingdom made manifest in the midst of God’s creation; the implications of which reflects new beginnings rather than disastrous endings.
Understanding what it means to be left behind in this context is to understand a God who loves his creation and is actively engaged with it. It is to understand and have faith not in a God of destruction but a God who is always calling his world into renewal. That act of renewal is a powerful expression of love. When our expectations of salvation are white robes, golden harps, and fluffy clouds we deny the worthiness of this world created by God. Salvation is not escapism. Instead of some divine escape plan, God offers us his divine mercy and grace while we are alive in human form. He calls us into partnership with him and one another to renew
this earth. We know the joy and longing of that call as our anticipation builds during the season of Advent. Even the simple act of decorating our homes is an act of renewal reflecting that desire for our own lives.
Advent is a season of expectation and anticipation. If we minimize one in favor of the other we miss some of the beauty and wonder of who we are as a faithful people celebrating our Lord and Savior and awaiting his return. Amen.
Advent I, Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-4; Matthew 24:36-44
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal
Sunday, December 1, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer