Matthew 24:37-44, First Sunday of Advent
Have you ever heard the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by the Russian composer Rachmaninov? This rhapsody begins with a tune that I am sure all of you have heard, Caprice 24 by Paganini. In this first part of the rhapsody, we hear such a vibrant frenzy inspired by Paganini’s Caprice. My favourite part of this rhapsody is, however, when Rachmaninov takes this frenetic musical motif and turns it upside down. What we then have after this inversion is a spacious piece of sublime beauty. It is amazing to me how through a simple inversion of a frenetic musical motif is Rachaninov capable giving us one of the most memorable and beautiful melodies of all time, a piece sometimes referred to as Somewhere in Time.
Just like how an inverted frenetic motif delivers a piece of unparalleled beauty in music, I wonder if the busy-ness of our lives, yours and mine, once inverted would be beautiful as well. I ask this, because our readings today in some sense invite us to accomplish what Rachmaninov does with music. Our readings invite us to turn upside-down our perception of time. Instead of being overwhelmed by the busy-ness of this present moment, we are invited to attend to the first coming of Christ and his second coming.
Isn’t this what Jesus reminds us in our Gospel today? Some people are just so busy, eating, drinking, taking wives, husbands. They are so busy with things in their lives that they fail to pay attention to what is really happening, what really matters. Stay awake, says Jesus, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. Turn it upside down, your sense of priorities if you find yourself so busy. Turn it upside down, your sense of time, the ‘now’ is not ALL that matters. Rather, the ‘now’ we inhabit, only derives its meaning from being suspended in time between Jesus’ first and second coming. If you do not do so, you might miss noticing what is really happening, what really matters. We are invited to wait vigilantly.
This does not mean that in Advent, or indeed the rest of our lives, we are to do nothing but wait. Advent waiting is an active waiting, a more purposeful doing. We wait because our lives as Christians are inserted between the gift of Jesus’ birth at Christmas and the gift of the redemption of all that we are on the Last Day. A doing that is ever mindful of our beginnings and ends in God.
And so in our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us how we must wait and do things. In the days to come, so our first reading begins, indicating that this vision of the realisation of the Kingdom of God on earth is not immediate. Though this vision is still far off, both in time and space, we must begin our journey towards it. Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, declares the prophet. This journey we make towards the Temple of God, is not something we do alone, but together as a community. We must learn to walk together as one people.
While journeying together we realize that our unity is actually God’s gift to us. By changing swords into ploughshares, spears into sickles (2:4), reversing the change from silver to dross, wine to water, princes to thieves (1:22-23) we understand how God is reversing the tide of things going bad. God changes the weapons of war in our hands into instruments for planting and harvesting. God turns us away from the immediate destruction of war, to that patient agricultural rhythm of planting, nurturing, harvesting. By changing the tools in our hands, God teaches us to wait.
How difficult it is right now to imagine a realisation of this vision of a united humanity! Instead of weapons changing to agricultural implements, we live in a political landscape where bricks are made into walls that divide people. Things seem to just be going from bad to worse, not the other way around as described in the prophecy of Isaiah.
You see that is the whole difficulty with waiting. Waiting makes us radically vulnerable for the things we wait for may never materialise, the person we wait for may never come. Waiting opens up our hearts to being wounded so deeply that we prefer to hide in darkness, lest we be seen for all our vulnerability. Hence, St Paul reminds us that we are not to hide under cover of the dark. No, we are to arm ourselves and appear in the light. We are to wait in the light.
Though this might frighten us for waiting in the light opens us up to all sort of dangers, we are reminded by St Paul that we will be safe because we put on the armour of light, the armour of Christ. With the armour of Christ, nothing can harm us. We will not be conquered by another. We dare to wait secure in love.
What does all this mean to us now? I’d like to suggest some practical things which I feel our Advent readings invite us all to do. First, un-busy our lives, our hearts. Turn that busy-ness upside down. How easy it is to get caught with all that frenetic activity in school or at work. Learn to do less things. Learn to do things that really matter. Second, learn to make time for another person this Advent and Christmas. All of us have someone in our lives who needs our time. Remember that making time for another person makes us wait vulnerably. Don’t give up so soon if things don’t materialise the way we want them to, or if they do not come to us as we want them to. Learn to wait with them. Third, if you can’t wait for someone, at least resolve not to make another person more busy. After all, we should not get un-busy by being irresponsible. We get un-busy by learning to share that responsibility with one another.
Finally, the fourth resolution: learn to wait for God. Learn to wait vigilantly, so be aware of all that is going in your world, in your heart. Learn to wait in the light, not just hiding and pretending that you do not care. Learn to wait secure in love, for God has waited an eternity for this moment with you and desires to live here with you for the rest of eternity.