By: Jen deCombe
First Sunday of Advent: We blow out the candle of despair and in its place we light the candle of hope.
Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
This year’s first Gospel reading of the Advent season comes as a shock to many of us. Unlike the images of Christmas that surround us, there are no joyful angels shining in the sky or three wise men bearing gifts. The only stars in this reading are the ones falling out of the sky.
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:24).
This is not an easy passage to understand at any time of the year, and especially not during Advent when so many of us long for the warm and cozy feelings that we associate with Christmas. So why do it this way? First of all, this reading reminds us that the Christian story is not over yet. Yes, we celebrate the birth of our Savior two thousand years ago. However, without the understanding that Jesus is coming back, we miss the fullness of the Christian story. Our hope comes from the one who came into the world as light and who is coming again to make all things new.
Another reason this reading is so powerful is that it helps us make sense of the darkness that surrounds us. We live in volatile times. I can hardly remember a day this year when I wasn’t overwhelmed with stories of presidential tweets, the refugee crisis, hurricanes, or the outpouring of “Me, too” stories. It’s hard not to look into our cultural and political landscapes and throw our hands up in despair, worried that we are marching towards a mistaken future. Surely this isn’t what life should look like 2000 years after the incarnation.
Apocalyptic readings like this one in Mark remind us that we live in an in-between time. Yes, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5), but the darkness has yet to overcome. There is still much work to be done. But we need not fear the dark, for it is against a darkened backdrop that God’s greatest acts of love and solidarity are revealed.
Into the chaos of our world, God’s light breaks through…
“In the beginning…darkness covered the face of the deep…Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:2-3).
Into unfamiliar places, God’s light breaks through….
“The Lord went in front of them…in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21).
Into our confusion, God’s light breaks through…
“Your word is lamp to my feet and light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
Into our feelings of doubt, God’s light breaks through…
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Into our hopes for a day when we will live in God’s radiance, God’s light breaks through…
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
As we wait for the one we know as the light of the world, we can rest assured that God does not abandon us to the darkness. God has always and will always come as light into the darkness of our shattered world – “they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds.” Placing our hope in the light is not just sentimental hope that wishes for a different future, but the hope that enables us to look into our brokenness and know that the one who makes all things possible is with us. So in the weeks leading up to Christmas, do not look into our broken world and despair, instead look carefully and you will see the light shining through. Christ is coming.
Jen de Combe is Associate Secretary for Canadian Ministries in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the APCE denominational representative of the PCC, serving on the Communications and Resources ministry team.