First Sunday of Advent
When I was a boy I knew an old rancher whose face was permanently sunburned and lined from decades of living outside. People said he had a “perpetual squint.” Daylight or dark, indoors or out, he always looked like he was squinting, looking across some pasture for a stray cow in the face of glaring sun and blowing wind. Squinting, looking into the distance for so many years had shaped his face; it had shaped the way he looked at everything.
Walker Percy, tells in his novel Love in the Ruins and its sequel novel The Thanatos Syndrome about a small, remnant church out in the woods of Louisiana. They are fragile and exiled from the mainstream, conventional and successful American church. They have a small AIDS clinic where they care for the sick and dying and care for each other.
Their priest, Father Rinaldo Smith, is eccentric and helps pay the bills by hiring out as a fire-watcher. It is his job to climb the fire-tower by night and watch for forest fires below while he also looks “for signs and portents in the skies.” Throughout the two novels he’s always watching, squinting into the distance, looking for portents, looking for something.
Our readings are for the First Sunday of Advent. Advent, which means “coming,” is about the coming of Christ. It is about Christ coming in Bethlehem 2000 years ago but more, Advent is about Christ coming again sometime in the future. At the same time, it is about Christ coming again in renewal in our lives now, and coming into this present status-quo world.
We are called to hold these three tenses of Christ’s coming in mind all the time. The testimony of the church for thousands of years has been, “Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ will come again.” Therefore, we’re to be getting ready, preparing, watching and waiting for the coming. Get the house ready, the master is coming. Get the house ready Christ is coming. Get your life together, Christ is coming. Watch. Squint.
In our reading from Mark Jesus tells us in no uncertain language, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come… Keep awake” (Mark 13: 32-37).
Therefore, the calling of the church is to live on tiptoes, to squint and to watch, to live with the expectation that at any minute now something might happen. We Christians believe that yes, we do live in the end times. But we believe the end has already come in Jesus Christ. Jesus came and ushered in the beginning of the end of this old world. The end has started with him.
Churchill famously said after it became apparent that Great Britain had triumphed over Hitler in what became known as the Battle of Britain, “this is not the end and this is not even the beginning of the end but it is the end of the beginning.” Well, in the coming of Christ, the church realized that this was the beginning of the end. And when we become Christians, we start to live according to this new time in Christ. As the Apostle Paul put it, “the old is passing away, all things are becoming new.” We Christians step into what Paul calls the “new creation.”
At the same time, the end of the old is not yet complete. There is still more to come. We Christians see and live now what we believe will be true for all people in the future so we start living now the Way of the Kingdom of God because we believe that it is already coming to pass and it will continue to come to pass. Here and there it is breaking in around us. We want to watch, be alert and look for it. Who knows when the new creation might break in nearby?
Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter about her lupus and said, “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.”
You see, our watching and looking, our perpetual squinting is not just about way out there. It’s about right here in your life and in our life together. What new way might Christ come to us? For Flannery O’Connor it was learning to see her lupus in a different way; squinting and seeing the blessing in it along with the pain and suffering.
Learning to squint with one eye, learning to watch and look, means learning to see as God sees, seeing the blessing in the midst of the suffering, seeing the good, noticing the love, being sensitive to the grace of the many small ways God’s Way is breaking in around us while also noticing the portents of death which we resist. It does not mean seeing something that’s not there and trying to make it look good. No, what it means to squint is to watch for what is really there that we’re otherwise blind to. It means looking for Christ, and watching for Christ who might show up at any moment.
So we watch and look and squint until it becomes perpetual. It defines who we are.