A Reflection on Mark 13:24-37 By The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski
When I was a little girl one of my favorite activities was to lie outside and watch the falling stars. During the month of August my brothers and I would line up on blankets in our front yard excited that we were allowed to stay up way past our bedtimes. We would lie there in great anticipation of seeing the falling stars, hoping to see a really big one! As our excitement eased and we became quiet I found myself pondering the immensity of the universe. I tried with all my might to imagine an endless universe, a space that went on forever and ever. I tried to imagine other planets like ours with life on them. I tried to not be limited by the images of our favorite TV show, Lost in Space. If alien life exists in outer space, I thought, it was probably not dangerous monsters out to harm us, but rather beings that expressed the mystery of God acting in all creation.
Advent, the season of the church year that we begin today, beckons us in a similar way to imagine the mystery of God acting in creation. Advent is a season of darkness, mystery, wonder, and, like my brothers and me lying on those blankets, a time of anticipation and waiting.
Life provides lots of things to wonder about, lots of things to question. How it is possible for a person to be mauled, run over, and killed, by a mob of Christmas shoppers? Or, as we worry about terrorists randomly shooting people in hotels in India, how do we make sense of this chaos? It makes me want to stand up and, like the robot in Lost in Space, flail my arms and shout, “Danger danger”
I don’t have a simplistic answer to these and other questions. Rather I know that when we focus on who we are as a people of God and trust in God’s faithfulness to us we cultivate a way to understand the anxieties and fears of our lives. Our faith anchors us in the assurance of God’s faithfulness in an uncertain world. Our faith helps us make meaning out of the tragedies of our world. Through the church our faith gives us a language, words like greed and sin, words that point to our brokenness and our need for God. Each Sunday morning, when we gather to worship we hear the story of the history of human brokenness and of God’s response with love and faithfulness.
Stories are important. They remind us of who we are and our place in the world. Stories are shared from generation to generation, stories about our grandparents, our parents, ourselves, and our children and grandchildren. Stories we tell which will then be retold by other generations. Of course each time a story is told it changes just a bit. Even when we tell the same story over and over we might choose to nuance a certain piece of it or we might hear a piece of the story in a new way.
The same thing is true of the stories of salvation that we hear on Sunday morning. Sunday after Sunday, Year in and year out, we listen to scripture readings and sermons and pray the Eucharist. And yet, if we pay attention, the story we hear will not be exactly the same from one Sunday to the next, from one year to the next. In part this is because as a liturgical church we anchor our worship in the seasons of the church. These seasons, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, tell us the story of the life of Christ, spread out across a year.
Our Gospel reading this morning does not ease us into Advent with a gentle call to wait. Instead it has an apocalyptic tone that reflects the real fears we face of death and annihilation. But, rather than keep us in that place of fear, this reading throws us into the mystery - Jesus’ words are filled with layers of symbolism and complex visual images and sobering ideas. Jesus’ vision propels us out of the comfort and security of our ideas and world and drops us into the mystery of God. This reading reminds us that we cannot know everything. We can’t see everything, we can’t predict everything. Jesus speaks of losing sun, moon, and stars, of darkness, the loss of our usual ways of illumination. Then this reading - and the season of Advent remind us - when the world is deprived of light as we’ve always known it, we are to become that source of light. We are the source through which the light of Christ can shine.
One of the things we are doing at St. Francis is engaging the many opportunities for praying the Eucharist that our rich Episcopal tradition affords us. We are anchoring each of the prayers in the context of the liturgical year, choosing to worship with a particular Eucharistic prayer because it speaks intentionally to the theme of the season we are in.
In the season of Advent we will be praying a particular version of the Eucharistic prayer that conveys the mystery of the Advent season. This story, this prayer, is a dialogue between priest and congregation. It begins with the story of who we are and how Christianity continues the story begun with the Israelites:
We say, “We praise you and we bless you, holy and gracious God, source of life abundant. From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing. You made us in your image and taught us to walk in your ways. But we rebelled against you, and wandered far away; and yet, as a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us.” Do you hear our story in this? Do hear how this connects to the opening verses of the Book of Genesis and the story of Israelites? And how it connects us to the ways humans act out, ways in which instead of building up the body, we seek to tear it apart? It is an age old story that plays out over and over.
We then begin the salvation history story as it continues in and through Christ, we pray: “To deliver us from the power of sin and death and to reveal the riches of your grace, you looked with favor upon Mary, your willing servant, that she might conceive and bear a son, Jesus the holy child of God.” You see how this prayer tells us the Advent story, the story of God choosing to become human?
The prayer then continues with the story of how Jesus lived his life: “He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love.” Sadly, part of the story is our rejection of Jesus….of God’s love…
The story then moves to the last night of Jesus’ life and the institution of the Eucharist itself. We pray,” On the night before he died for us, Jesus was at table with his friends.” Remember the scripture verse where Jesus tells his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends?” That is the version of the story we hear in this prayer. When we gather around this table Jesus calls us to gather as friends.
This then is what we pray for, that we can be friends and as friends, the Body of Christ. Then, using these words we pray: “Pour out your Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Body and Blood of Christ. Breathe your Spirit over the whole earth and make us your new creation, the Body of Christ given for the world you have made..” Not only is the bread and wine consecrated and made holy, but so are we. Our lives, in the story of our salvation history, are made the living body of Christ. Even in the threat of chaos and a world on the brink of collapse, we are called to treat each other with compassion, dignity, respect, and love. We are called to let love be our guide, instead of fear, because we know our purpose is ultimately faithfulness to God.
May the words of this story seep deeply into our hearts. May the words shape and form us as friends, as God calls us to be. May this light of Christ, the love of God, shine into fear and bring hope, shine into the anger and bring peace, shine into hurt and bring healing. May this story truly be our story, Sunday to Sunday, year to year, from one prayer to another, reminding us of the love God has for us.
And, may we be that love.