To Arrive Where We Started

Ben E. Helmer, Vicar
St. James’ Episcopal Church
Eureka Springs, Ark.
Nov. 27, 2011
Advent 1

Every year in Advent the preacher is put in a tight corner: the preacher can use Advent as a time to rail against the evils of commercialism; or he can take the passage from Mark and use it to terrify everyone with apocalyptic fervor. After all, there is plenty of it around. One preacher, Harold Camping, tried twice this year to predict the end of the world on May 21st and when that failed again on October 21st. He then declared bankruptcy.

Well, I choose to do neither of these things. Nobody I know of in this congregation was waiting for the doors of a big box store to open on Friday at 4am; and no one has asked me if I think we will survive Dec. 21st 2012 when the Mayan calendar runs out. And I don’t think God is terribly interested in who shops on Black Friday nor how many people devour the novels by Hal Lindsey, a famous (or infamous) fundamentalist evangelical who has been predicting the end of the world for a long time now.

Just take a moment to look around us. What do we see? A different color on the altar and appendia – purple; it reminds us of royalty, and is a signal that something is different. We are now preparing for the coming of Christ in earnest. We know not when, neither the day or the hour, but we know Christ will return to reign – and as the hymn says, “Every eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty.”

Look some more and your eyes focus on the Advent wreath. Its origins are traced to at least the Middle Ages when Christians used the Advent wreath to focus on the light overcoming the darkness of late autumn and winter. The green reminds us of life coming from God and the circle is a sign that life is continuous, and is our journey with God. And it has a circular quality to it, like the last lines of one of T.S. Eliot’s poems from “Little Guiding”:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time.

These signs, color and symbol, give room for us to think about leaving behind the old year and beginning anew. They draw each of us to a place of quiet contemplation, of thinking about what God is calling us to, of awakening us from our preoccupation with the past, especially our mistakes and sorrows. The collect even causes our hearts to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” No doom and gloom for this lot

My advice, and I preach this to myself as much as any of you, is to let Advent work in you – don’t fight it. Let yourself rejoice that while the world may be running after the best bargains or the newest tech toys, you have a place to go to, the season of Advent. You can come home to it, to an Advent wreath and a quiet place, whenever you wish. And in that quiet you can listen and wait for God to come to you, to enfold you, embrace you, speak to you.

Two years ago I talked about keeping Advent by turning off the news – well, I still think that is one way you can immerse yourself in Advent. It’s the spiritual equivalent of de-cluttering. As I think about it, I fail to see how listening to the 24-hour news cycle benefits my soul, and I’m a person who listens a lot to the news. But my soul needs some tending to, and Advent is a good time to focus on its needs.

So, I’m going to do that. Oh, I’ll probably look at the headlines in the morning paper and maybe scan the Episcopal News Service once a week to see if any of my friends got elected bishop of someplace, but beyond that I want to try it, really try it and see what it brings to me. There are books I’ve been wanting to finish or read, and there is the opportunity for quietly allowing God to feed my soul. I can’t make the world stop its careening frenzy toward Dec. 25th, but I don’t have to take the ride.

My sister and I often reminisce about Advent in our house when we were growing up…and we remember it with fondness; my father’s somewhat stern insistence that we keep Advent separately from Christmas, the warmth of our modest family table lit only by the Advent candles and holding off Christmas until almost the last minute were things that worked in our lives. Advent was calm, serene and sober and Christmas was joyful but never crazy. I still think that is the best way for me, for us.

Well, there are still a lot of things to do this season; but remember they are all of our choosing. We don’t need any hints from Heloise or tips from Martha Stewart to make it through; we just need our common sense and our choice to let Advent pierce the dark places in our souls.

Now please take your bulletin insert and recite with me the collect (which I hope you will do daily this week) the prayer that sets the theme for the coming of Christ and the renewal of our souls: Let us pray together:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.