Advent begins with a bang, not a whimper. The prophet Isaiah cries out for justice — for God to rend the heavens and come down to earth in power. The Gospel warns us to keep awake, for the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, at a time of suffering and terror, and will bring about the unmaking of the world. It speaks of stars falling from the sky and the sun and moon failing to shine. It’s enough to make me wonder why I think I want to meet Jesus at all.
But then I remember: that “day of darkness and gloom” (Joel 2:2) is not the end. It is, in the words of Jesus, “the beginning of the birth pangs” (Matt 24:8). And what is to be born is not darkness, but light — a light so great that the darkness shall not overcome it.
I had a glimpse of that light two weeks ago, when I traveled to Alabama for the ordination of Mary Bea Sullivan, who completed part of her training at my parish. If you’ve ever wondered where your clergy come from, they come from the hands of a host of men, women, and children who have prayed over them and worked with them and wept with them, and who have found that, for some reason, God has called them to serve as ordained leaders in God’s church.
In the Episcopal Church, we call that labor of discernment the “ordination process,” and it’s a bear. People who think they are called to ordained ministry work with committee after committee, parish after parish; they attend classes and do fieldwork and preach sermons and pray a lot and hope that, somewhere in the midst of it, God will break open their hearts and pour in enough grace to sustain a lifelong work of love. (In this, they are no different from laypeople, who also need enough grace to make their lives a work of love. It’s just a different work.) It’s all the lived embodiment of a theology that believes that a call to ministry (like a decision to get married) must be mutual: both the individual and the church need to say “yes.”
At the end is the ordination itself, when all those people who have worked with and love that ordinand come together to pray them into a new ministry. It is a bit like a wedding: all the people you love, who are usually scattered among many places, come together in one room, and for just a few moments, you can look out and see them all, smiling at you and trying not to weep, while you look out at them, and smile, and try not to weep, too.
It is a magical moment: a coming-together of all the disparate strands of your life, God’s eternity breaking into our poor, limping time and letting us see what it means for all of creation to be held together in God’s love. It is an end of separation, an end of division, an end of feeling pulled between too many people and too many places and not enough of you to go around. It is the supper that Jesus ate at the home of Mary and Martha after raising Lazarus from the dead: the dead and the living engrossed in one rich conversation, just delighting in being with one another. A foretaste of that great banquet that will have no end.
And so we press on, even in times of clouds and deep darkness. We press on not for the Day of Judgment, but for what lies beyond: green fields and warm sun and all the people we have loved in this world and all the people we have not yet had a chance to learn to love gathered together around the One who gave us live, who gives us salvation, and who holds us in his hands forever.