Signs of Advent

The Gospel reading this year (Year C) for the first Sunday of Advent was Luke 21:25–36. My Lectionary study group didn’t want anything to do with preaching that text, instead they decided to focus on the reading from Jeremiah. This text in Luke is part of a larger apocalyptic passage linking the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans with the apocalyptic discourse of the coming of the Son of Man.

If we can get past the apocalyptic worldview that dominated the first century Jewish world and the sensationalism and literalism of modern day apocalyptic interpretations like those expressed in the Left Behind books, this passage yields some profound spiritual truths. Apocalyptic language is great poetry, and if we can read apocalyptic texts with a poet’s mind and heart and imagination, these texts can bring forth life.

Jesus chided the religious authorities of his day for their failure to see the signs of the inbreaking reign of God. These were signs of healing and restoring grace that mended broken bodies and brought wholeness and peace to tortured souls. These were signs of accepting and forgiving grace expressed in such ways as an open table that welcomed all manner of “sinners”—the very ones excluded by the religious establishment.

But in addition to signs of grace, there are also signs of terror that show us that the reign of God has not come in fullness. There is much to be done. Luke mentions disturbances in the heavens and on the earth, of nations being in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea, of people fainting in terror.

Our family spent Thanksgiving in Gatlinburg this year and one night Sophie, our 30 month old granddaughter who had went to sleep lying between my wife and I, awoke crying. Well, actually she woke us crying, but she wasn’t exactly awake. Jordan, our son, was in the living room sleeping on the hide a way bed. He roused up when he heard Sophie crying.

Having studied psychology now for a couple of years, he quickly offered us his expert diagnosis. He said, “She’s just having a night terror. Lots of kids have them.” Of course, he did nothing to drive the terror away, but he was proud of himself that he could name the demon. Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

There are harsher night terrors than a bad dream. There are terrors that threaten our physical, mental, and emotional health, terrors that threaten our relationships and our livelihood.

There is not just one end to the world any more than there is just one coming of Christ to look forward to. When Jesus was killed, the disciples believed their world had ended. Their dreams were dashed and their hopes crushed. When several decades later the Romans besieged Jerusalem, those Jewish disciples that were caught up in the fury of the wrath of the Empire thought their world had come to an end. In a manner of speaking, the world might end any day of the week for any of us with a grim diagnosis, a sudden accident, the death of a loved one, a debilitating injury, the loss of a job, or a notice of divorce.

When the heavens are shaken and the sea roars and the foundations of the earth split asunder, our best hope is to keep looking for the coming of our Lord. We don’t have to look far, because he is already here. The Spirit of Christ is with us and for us and among us. Christ cannot fix all our problems or stop all our pain or replace all our losses, but he can walk with us through the night terrors, through the pain and suffering. He can share the load and accompany us on the journey.

I don’t know why it is, but it seems that almost all significant growth in our lives occurs when we go through the crucible of suffering, when we find ourselves in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. It seems as though it takes a certain amount of chaos and turbulence and hardship to move us along the path that leads to personal maturity and spiritual growth.

Ronald Rolheiser, the author of The Holy Longing and The Shattered Lantern, was asked after a lecture if significant spiritual growth can occur without suffering, without walking through some fiery trial. He thought it possible, but extremely rare.

He recalled the time when he was in college at the University of Alberta. A well known and well respected psychologist who was recognized in his field and had written a number of books was on campus giving a talk. After the talk someone asked him if it is possible to experience a deeper level of maturity and personal growth without going through a time of intense pain and crisis.

The psychologist, who was also a deeply spiritual man, said that it is possible in theory. But then he added that in his 40 years of work as a clinical psychologist he had never seen it happen. Apparently, it takes some degree of pain and loss to break down the walls we build around our fragile egos.

Perhaps you have noticed that this time of year many of us either begin our day in the dark or we go home after work in the dark. The daylight is getting shorter and the darkness longer. The shortest day of the year, which is also the longest night of the year, will occur on December 21. Then, after the winter solstice, the days will start to inch their way forward and our nights will gradually shorten. Advent teaches us that it will get darker before it gets lighter.  But by watching and waiting in hope, we grow up. We mature. We learn what is really important. We discover the “more” to life.

Luke says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth.” We cannot control the roaring and tossing of the sea. But what we can do is be ready, be watchful, be awake and alert and prepared to endure with hope, so that we can escape spiritual collapse and experience the power and glory of the coming of the Son of Man.

We experience such power and glory by confronting our fears and facing our terrors with an ever growing and expanding love for all of life. The power and glory of the Son of Man is the power and glory of the divine, magnanimous, unconditional love of God radiating through our frail humanity.   

If we are watchful we can see signs of Christ’s love all around us. We see it in a child’s smile, a mother’s touch, a friend’s encouragement, a prayer prayed in heart-felt passion, an act of forgiveness. If we are awake we can see God’s love expressed in a thousand different ways. That’s the miracle of incarnation.

And what will it take for us to be a sign of God’s love to others? When, with faith and hope, or even without faith and hope, with whatever spiritual strength we can muster, we offer our time, attention, resources, and service, our very selves in the interest of and for the good of others, we become a sign of God’s glory and power.  

These signs—the roaring and tossing of the sea, the shaking of the heavens and earth, the coming of the power and glory of the Son of Man—are all happening right now. They are happening all around us, to us, through us, within us. Let us lift up our heads, our redemption is drawing near.


  1. I remembered this post following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. I had to go back and reread it. It does relate. Thank you.

    May Peace Prevail On Earth!


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