In the Time of This Mortal Life

Now in the time of this mortal life. What other time is there? There is Advent time; the collect for Advent announces a different framework for time, a framework that transforms the daily of our mortal life into a new dimension. It all began, and still begins today, this very day, the first Sunday of Advent, in the time of this mortal life with the Advent of Jesus Christ.

Our mortal life - the daily round and common task, is marked day by day, year by year by New Year's Day. January 1st is the arbitrary dividing point by which we signal the passing of the years of this mortal life. It is circular time, repetitious, endless, or so we hope. Otherwise, everything is meaningless. The time of this mortal life is determined by one thing after another, after another, after another, year after year, some years more and some less memorable than others. One year after another, after another.

But once upon a time, in the fullness of time, our mortal life was intersected. It was changed, transformed, by a one-time event that remade everything, including the way we understand time. The event that makes all this difference is called Jesus Christ. His Advent announces a whole new dimension.

Daily time, the time we mark, year by year, with New Year's Day, is circular. We see it as a circle that has a single center around which everything revolves, over and over and over again. Quite different from this, the time we celebrate in the name of Jesus Christ is elliptical, marked by two foci-two complimentary but different centers-Christmas and Easter.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The first day of the Christian New Year. This year, the Christian Year, marks and celebrates the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Advent, which means "coming," announces the beginning of the Christian Year. Advent proclaims the coming of Jesus the Christ at Christmas, the incarnate presence of God in human flesh, whose life is fulfilled in his resurrection on Easter Day.

One of my dearest friends applied for a position that required him to instruct and inspire younger people. His interviewer and evaluator asked him, "Tell me about your walk with Jesus." My friend replied, "You know, everywhere I go, no matter where or when, I find that Jesus has arrived there first. Wherever I go, Jesus is already there." The evaluator made no reply; he had no idea what to say, and my friend was never offered the job. Was his response too theologically subtle? Jesus is not the Lord whom we discover or define or claim. Jesus comes to us. We do not summon Him by any action of our own. Jesus is God's gift. While we were yet sinners, he was born, died, and raised again for us that we might inherit new life.

Advent announces that Jesus is coming and not through any action of our own. We do not deserve it. Advent happens. Advent means that Jesus comes again and for all time, at Christmas, this Christmas.

Now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.

Our mortal life has been dramatically changed by the present of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to visit us in great humility. He came once and for all time. He came fully, as a human being, who will share our life in every detail.

The cornerstone of the Christian faith is the Incarnation: God made flesh, God and man in one person. The Incarnation is a paradox-two contradictory truths held to be present at one time and in one person. It has never happened before. It will never happen again. That's why it is called a paradox. The Incarnation is not easy to understand. It is unique in the proper sense of that often misused word. It only happens once-and for all time.

The difficulty we experience with the reality of Incarnation is not only that God Himself would deign to visit us, but that God would visit us as a human being. When we err-fail fully to understand and acknowledge the Incarnation-what we have great difficulty realizing and acknowledging is that Jesus is fully human. Fully human. Jesus does not just appear to be a human being. Jesus was a human being, just like you and me.

Now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.

The key word to describe Jesus is humility - the word means "of the earth." No pretense. No pretend. Fully human. Not a phony. The real thing.

Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on the cross.
Philippians 2:5-8

The example we are offered in the person of Jesus is beyond our grasp-more than we can fully comprehend or imitate. But it is an example, a model of how human life should be lived.

Mother-in-law jokes are cruel and stupid, the worst form of passive-aggressive behavior, that is to say an attempt to wound another person by underhanded and indirect means. The fact is that if a bridegroom wants to know to whom he will be married in 40 years, he should look carefully at his bride's mother. The chances are strong that this is the person whom his wife will become.

Over several years, the better I knew my mother-in-law, the more I admired her. She was a woman of wisdom and depth, thoughtful, well-read, lovely to look upon, clear in her values that were deeply rooted in family, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. She had a best friend-her husband-and she was the standard and model for the woman I loved and married.

My mother-in-law was also a person who, while she took the world very seriously, did not take herself too seriously. She realized that what mattered most existed outside of her and well beyond her. She saw herself as God saw her, which is another definition of the word humility. She was tentative by nature-perhaps too much so-for she had embodied and understood the wisdom that surrounded her and has lived long after her.

In the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty

The Christian Year that begins today on the First Sunday in Advent is marked by two foci-Christmas and Easter-two complimentary but different events. The time of this Christian Year, unlike the time of our mortal life, is not circular nor repetitious. It has a beginning announced in Advent and effected in Christmas, and it has a goal: the Resurrection of Easter. There is inexorable progress from life through death into the New Life of Easter. Our life in Jesus Christ has meaning, for life has purpose and direction that begins as we await the birth of Christ and concludes in the new life Christ has made possible for us beyond the grave when

We may rise to the life immortal

The new life that awaits us, the life of the Resurrection, is of all the realities of the Christian faith most difficult for us to understand. We shall not fully understand it until we fully experience it.

Nonetheless, time and time again, there are small events that provide a taste of what is to come. Each and every one of them is marked by anticipation-waiting-which is the central experience of Advent. We spend four weeks waiting, exploring the rich and multi-faceted aspects of the time of this mortal life that will ultimately usher us, fully born, born anew, into the new time that awaits us in the life of the Resurrection.

In conclusion, one small story about the glory and necessity of the anticipation of Advent:

Far upstairs in what was once the attic of the house where I grew up was a spare room, sparsely furnished with a painted brass bed, bureau, desk, two chairs, and a rope rug. It was my mother's spare room, far removed from the rest of the house, where she would undertake an occasional sewing project. One day I discovered, quite by accident, that this was the room where mother gathered the Christmas presents. She arrayed them in neat piles-a pile on each end of the bed, others on the bureau, the desk, on each of the chairs, several in drawers-arranged by recipient. Christmas was a family affair, but mother was Santa Claus.

As the much younger child, I was often left alone-all alone-in the house. Temptation was overwhelming. I would tiptoe, up, up, up the stairs and then down the long corridor to the closed door of the spare room, open it, slowly, silently, to feast my eyes then my hands. I did this frequently, through three different pre-Christmas seasons.

Somehow, my mother figured this out. On the Christmas morning when I was 12 years old, when I descended the stairs at 4 o'clock in the morning dark to examine what Santa had spread around the Christmas tree, there was not a single present for me.

Surely, there was some mistake! After the rest of the family arrived, more presents would surely materialize. Only they did not. I tried to remain calm, retreated behind a shell, moved to sit, alone in the corner of the room. Mother pretended not to notice.

My discomfort was so intense, so excruciating, it has blocked all memory of the pain. What I do remember is that at long last, my mother made a short, loud speech about the absence of my presents. She asked me to accompany her to an adjacent hall closet. I would rather have run away. When she opened the door, there was the pile from the spare room still unwrapped, all recognizable, since I had seen and touched everyone often before. She bade me help her place my presents around the tree. I did so. That was all there was to it. Amidst the cries of "Oh" and "Ah" and "Can you believe it?" nothing else was said or done. The genius of the punishment was that it was never explained. What it was intended to mean was left for me to conclude. What I concluded through my anguish is that if life is to be fully lived, it is to be marked by anticipation. The essential color and beauty that is given to each of us in every moment of every day and every year is hope. This hope is gratifying. This hope is reliable, but if it is to be hope in its fullness, then it remains unknown. We can anticipate it, be enlivened by it, but we shall not know it in its fullness. It remains to be known only to be fully known in the new life that we shall finally enter when we know and experience the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ whose Advent is announced today.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.