First Sunday of Advent

Do you like surprises? I’m sure that just perked some of you up. Now you’re just imagining all sorts of things, aren’t you? Good things? Not-so-good things? It has to be good. It’s just not right to look all excited and happy, and then announce something no one wants to hear. And the longer it takes to actually get to the surprise will just make everyone anxious. If it’s bad news, you’ve probably already heard it, since bad news travels faster. But that’s the nature of surprises. You don’t know what to feel because your feeling will be your response to some specific information or experience.

New information or new experiences can be either alarming or exciting, scary or comforting, or a combination of all these things. It just depends on your perspective and your past experience and your state of mind. If you’re by yourself at home and it’s after dark, and you’re not expecting anyone or anything, the phone ringing can be a welcome surprise, unless it’s really late and you have no immediate suspicions. You might then start scrolling in your mind the reasons why anyone would try to reach you so late. It could easily be a cause for concern. And it’s not any easier that you recognize the name on Caller ID. That’s why you text that you’re going to call before you call. Even if it’s not bad news. Your friends will appreciate the heads up. I know I would.

Frantic knocking at the front door that gets you out of bed in the morning can be extremely inconvenient and even annoying. It can be mildly distressing or absolutely frightening if it’s after dark, or it’s still dark, and when you open the door you find an unaccompanied child looking for a lost puppy, and it’s not even Halloween. So sorry. I’ve just been listening lately to too many tales of the strange and unexplained.

We might think of ourselves as generally calm and not easily rattled. But there are people who know us well who may have caught us in such a state of unease, if only for a fleeting moment. And as much as we like to think we are always in control and on top of things, we know it’s not always true. We just try to make sure no one else notices.

Experience is an excellent teacher. We can learn a lot from listening to our elders and reading books and googling information and watching YouTube videos. But there is absolutely no substitute for the kind of learning that results from direct first-hand experience. You can learn the effects of alcohol and tobacco use from watching people. But you will only learn to ride a bike by actually riding a bike, or fly a plane by actually flying a plane. But there are exceptions. For one, there is never any guarantee that you will successfully put together something from IKEA just because you did it once before.

We know that our time is fleeting. It gets more and more real the longer you’ve been around. And that knowledge will have implications we can’t just walk away from, whether about ourselves or the people we love. It means we need to make the necessary preparations, so we minimize the shock of that shoe falling eventually. And we learn to appreciate simple everyday blessings, the present moment, the time we spend together, in quiet, in spontaneity, in heart-to-heart conversation, the smiles, the laughter, the lingering hugs, because the day always comes too soon when that shoe falls.

The beginning of the new liturgical year is a time of somber reflection. We just got done with Thanksgiving when we gathered around the table with people we know and love, acknowledging the good we have in common, setting aside our differences and the things that have divided us. It would be even better if we were always in a Thanksgiving sort of mood, always grateful, always able at will to set our differences aside despite the climate of divisiveness we live in. And I propose we actually can, if we so choose. We just need to keep in mind that time is passing by.

And then we hear in sacred scripture that warning that comes at this time every year. “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” Perhaps the warning has lost its punch. The longer it takes for that shoe to fall, the less likely we are to be ready when it does. We look for tangible signs. Exhaustion and slowing down and a marked decrease in vigor and interest easily point to a change of season. And change can sometimes be alarming when it happens unexpectedly. But gradually or suddenly, change will happen. We can get ready now. And we can be ready always. Or we can put it off until the moment it comes upon us like a thief in the night.

As I watch my parents age, I find that I am not as critical, not so much in a hurry anymore, not as possessive or irritable or cynical. I can still be snarky, but it’s an easier switch to turn on or off. It’s okay if you haven’t noticed. The important thing is, I have. Now I have always been given over to introspection and rumination. Maybe it’s the job. Maybe it’s just me. But it’s definitely happening more. And as I look around and notice that the place is decorated for Advent, a lot of the same decorations that we put up last year, some faces are missing. We might think nothing of it because we’re still here. And that’s really all that matters. But if we knew then what we know now, what would be different? Because this time next year isn’t even on the radar. The thing is, some faces will be missing then too. We just never know whose.

But we need not live in fear of the unknown. We need not live with dread or sadness. We just need to be alert and compassionate and grateful and untroubled. We have time, but none of us know just how much. Still what we have is a blessing, and we can choose to use it as we please. We can keep it to ourselves, or we can share it with others. We can waste it away in anger or bitterness or jealousy or grief, or we can live selfishly without a care of how we impact those around us. The time we have is our grand opportunity to live life to the full, to achieve great success and accomplish amazing things, to enjoy the blessings of life and to extend blessings to others around us, to make the world a better place and provide many of the same opportunities for those who come after us. We will come and go, each of us. There was a time when someone else sat in the seat you’re sitting in. And someone else was standing here preaching. It doesn’t have to be a drastic change, but by this time next year, we will be in our new church building. You will all be sitting in a different seat. And I will be standing and preaching in a different place as well. It’s not going to be such a surprise because we’ve watched it happen in real time. It will be a surprise if we see different faces around us this time next year. None of us will be able to anticipate the exact details. But all this waiting and preparing is just a foretaste of bigger and better things.

And the surprise? Christmas is 23 days away. And not a day sooner. But you already knew that.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019