As a hockey game winds down toward the end of the 3rd period, you might recall the announcer, typically, saying over the PA system something like: “One minute remaining…” or “Last minute of play…”
And we get really pumped.
A surge of excitement and anticipation suddenly wells up inside us.
If our team is winning by a goal, it’s one last minute of intense hoping that the defense will hold up, and that the goalie will be sharp as ever against the last, desperate shots taken by the opposing team.
If our team is losing by a goal, it’s one last minute of intense hoping that in a last ditch spurt of energy, a player gets lucky and succeeds in knocking the puck past the opposing goalie.
It’s an exciting, nail-biting minute.
Like standing on our tip-toes, eagerly watching, waiting through every second of play, with more anticipation and attention than any of the other 59 minutes of the hockey game.
There’s a similar call in today’s Gospel text: a call to pay attention, to a heightened sense of awareness and anticipation.
But, to be honest, upon first reading, we might ask: Where’s the fun, excitement and joy in this call to attentiveness?
Stars falling from the heavens.
Sun and moon suddenly going dark.
Heavens being “shaken.”
Terrifying, frightful images bringing to mind cataclysmic, end-of-the-world scenarios.
What’s going on? Is Jesus really trying to scare us? To fill us with fear and trembling and foreboding at the prospect of “meeting our Maker”?
Is that really how God in Jesus operates?
To induce a necessary dose of suffering in the world to wake us up, and bend us into submission?
Is this what faith and spirituality is really all about?
I don’t believe Jesus was trying scare people.
True: Jesus stands in a long line of prophets before him, who’ve used similar ominous-sounding language – check out Zechariah.
But I think, in presenting these descriptions, Jesus was merely describing his world as it was in his day: a world where most people suffered, feared and worried, and were already beset by anxiety from widespread poverty and illness.
The Romans continued their intimidating, iron-hand rule, squashing the slightest hint of dissent and rebellion, clamping down, murdering protestors, forcing submission, instilling fear among the people.
Untreated disease ravaged the populace.
For the average person living in that day, life looked rather grim, to say the least.
The world was not a rosy picture.
And so, Jesus, using every-day images, was describing, and giving voice to the underlying feelings people were having about their scary, uncertain world.
Like holding up a mirror before them.
Jesus may as well have been describing our own world, holding up a mirror in front of us.
When we …
… endure the pain of broken relationships in our families,
…or conversations with doctors about diagnoses of cancer, or dementia,
…or when we hear about hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes in Syria because of bombs, or hear of millions of children dying of hunger without proper nutrition,
…or when we fill our days caring for a dying parent, exhausted and depleted,
…or when we bear the stress at work, or the urgency of no work,
…or bear the unrelenting power of depression…
How can we not say that it feels as though “the stars are falling,” and the “sun and moon lose their light” and all becomes dark?
So, at the very least, Jesus is calling us to greater honesty, to a greater acceptance of what really is, of the reality at hand, stripped of all illusion, fantasy, or rosy idealism.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says a lot more. And that’s what we need to focus on.
Because this passage is about hope, more than anything else.
That Jesus talks about God coming straight into the mess and darkness of our lives and world … that detail alone is amazing.
That Jesus refers to a fig tree, a living thing caught up in the seasonal patterns of death and new life … that no matter what, there will always be a springtime, an eventual return to new life, where green buds and leaves and flowers will once again bloom in all beauty, glory and hope.
That Jesus affirms that “God’s Word” of hope and new life is steadfast and true, and will never “pass away”, even though all other things are fleeting, and temporary, and will eventually disappear.
God’s Word remains.
And so, we wait, watchful, standing on our tip-toes, eagerly anticipating glimpses and signs of God’s presence – of grace, and goodness, beauty and compassion – right in the middle of our dark and tumultuous world.
This is what “Advent” is all about: learning the importance of waiting, and watching with eager anticipation, for God’s coming, for “The Word” to be “made flesh”, right before our eyes, here and now.
The Word was made flesh two thousand years ago.
God, becoming flesh and blood in Jesus, in human being, in the very real and tangible world of our existence.
Tourists and pilgrims to the village of Nazareth in present-day Israel today, can visit the limestone cave, the grotto, where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary, to announce the birth of Jesus.
Today, around and above this grotto, is built a huge Basilica – the Basilica of the Annunciation – which dominates the skyline of this small, bustling town.
But in that small grotto, stands an altar.
And on that altar sits a plaque upon which is written an inscription.
It’s relatively dark in that space, and the inscription is hard to see, but if you look carefully you can make out the words in Latin:
Verbum caro factum est. “The Word was made flesh.”
But, curiously, on this particular inscription, there’s another Latin word slipped in; the Latin word hic: meaning, “here.”
Verbum caro hic factum est.
The Word was made flesh, here!
Here. In the cave.
Here. In this small town nestled in the rural hillsides of Galilee.
Here. In the Middle East – of all other places on earth.
Here. In a particular, precise location in time and place.
And one that isn’t any more remarkable or spectacular than any other time or place, including our own.
With watchfulness and attention, standing eagerly on our tip toes like in “the last minute of play”, we pray for the eyes to see and ears to hear God coming to be among us, to “be made flesh” in our world, right now, right here.