I often find Advent the most elusive of all the liturgical seasons. All the other celebrations and observations in our Christian calendar are, relatively speaking, pretty clear-cut. Christmas is the festival of the Incarnation. In Lent, we give ourselves over to a time of fasting in preparation for the joyful season of new life in Easter. Even the summer so-called “Ordinary Time” afford the church an opportunity to focus on our need for everyday, “ordinary” spiritual nourishment. But there is something so much more … abstract about Advent. Is is joyful? Is it penitential? Yes. No. … Maybe? We read about the prophesies of Jesus’s second coming at the end of history … yet Advent is the start of a new liturgical year. So … is it an ending or a beginning. Yes. Both … Maybe?
And so let us consider The Neverending Story.
There are times when it is best for me simply to accept that I am a child of the 80’s. For better or for worse, my world will be shaped with reference to really, really cheesy fantasy movies. (For the record, I also make quite a poor hipster because I confess to loving such whimsical cinematic creations wholly un-ironically).
So, for example, I find myself often unable to look at our Advent altar frontal without immediately thinking of The Neverending Story. Specifically, the part at the end, after the Nothing has finally obliterated the magical realm of Fantasia and the human child Bastian finds himself with the Childlike Empress holding out one last glimmering fragment of her former kingdom against the darkness that has consumed it. (Check it out here, if you are not up on your 80’s classics). That tiny fragment of Fantasia becomes the seed from which is born a new, glorious wonderful world from the wishes of Bastian. The end becomes a new beginning out of a formless void.
It is that image of the void, the chaotic nothingness, that I see in the swirling blues and voilets of our Advent frontal. The void which cries out for the presence of God, which is promised … but not quite here yet. At the same time, though, we see the glimmer of a form about to take shape. Something is happening, even if it is not quite completed.
Perhaps this “already, but not yet” is where we find ourselves liturgically on this final Sunday of Advent when the church typically invites us to reflect on the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin Mary: “Greetings Mary, Lord is with you … You will conceive and bear a son.” The Sundays of Advent are filled with the voices of the prophets: whether it be Isaiah’s call for God to tear open the heavens and bring down his presence to earth or the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. All those longing and all those promises now find their fulfillment in the words of a single young woman in a remote town in Northern Israel: “I am the servant of the Lord.” Just like the world of Fantasia is born again through the small seed a little boy’s hope, so the Kingdom of Heaven begins with those first words of obedience and faith spoken through the virgin Mary.
We know that God’s full redemptive plan for his creation is far from completed. The recent news of the hostage situation in Sydney (which left 2 people dead, in addition to the hostage-taker) and the horrific account of the school children murdered in Pakistan makes it all too clear how desperately our world remains in need of salvation. And yet, the story of Mary promises us that the salvation has begun. God has acted. And there is more to come.