Advent 2 B: Just the Beginning

Mark 1:1-8

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I don’t know about you, but I find myself, during these weeks leading up to Christmas, simultaneously filled by the joy and anticipation of the season and…running pell-mell from one activity to another, barely on top of what’s coming next. This was somewhat true when I was a seminary prof, more true as a sem. president, and is even more the case now that I’m back in a parish. (I trust I’m not alone in this experience and that you probably know just what I mean!) And while it’s easy to forget amid all our various responsibilities, this combination of joyful celebration and slightly frenetic preparation colors the lives of most of our people as well.

I share all this in no way to complain – this is without a doubt my favorite time of the year! – but simply to acknowledge the beauty, joy, and complexity of the season. One of the things that has helped me navigate both the richness and complexity of these days before Christmas and in these first few months back in a wonderful parish setting is a mantra I’ve found myself repeating of late: “You don’t have to do everything in your first year!” And of course that’s true. I’m in just the beginning of my ministry at Mount Olivet, and while there is so much I’m excited to learn, dig into, and accomplish, it doesn’t – and can’t! – all happen at once.

It occurred to me while reading this week’s passage that this is also true of Christmas. We don’t have to prepare for all of it in Advent. We don’t have to celebrate everything about the Incarnation on December 25th, or even during the “twelve days of Christmas” spanning Dec. 25-Jan. 5th. There is just too much joy, too much courage, too much tenderness, too much hope, too much promise to squash into a single day, twelve days, or even the four weeks of Advent and the twelve days of Christmas. Indeed, perhaps we would be wise to defer some of our celebrations to the new year, when the tree has come down and decorations have been put away, when we go back to work or school, and when the credit card bill for the Christmas festivities arrives and demands to be paid.

Perhaps, indeed, the promise of Christmas is most necessary after Christmas. Which might mean it’s the perfect time, Dear Partner, to remind folks that the meaning and significance of Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, but really just begins during those days, absent the songs and lights and slightly worn out from all the celebrating, and when it seems suddenly harder to imagine that God would deign to take on our form, joining God’s own self to our lot and our lives. As W. H. Auden puts it in his magnificent Christmas poem (that is really so much more of an after-Christmas poem), “For the Time Being”:

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

The reading from St. Mark’s Gospel appointed for this day supports, I think, this important, and perhaps even crucial, deferral – or perhaps better, extension – of the meaning and significance of Christmas. Or, probably more accurately as Mark tells no Christmas story, Mark invites us to extend the significance of the entire Gospel beyond the confines of Christmas or, for that matter, the story he tells.

Notice that Mark begins his account not simply by saying that his work is “The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” but rather “The beginning of the good news….” It’s so easy to be taken off guard by the brevity, even terseness of Mark’s opening line – no angels and shepherds here, no genealogies or hymns to God’s eternal Word – that we overlook it altogether. But I think Mark is trying to tell us something, both by the simplicity and open-ended quality of his opening (and ending for that matter, but that’s another story!). I think Mark is suggesting – and keep in mind, Mark regularly suggests and provokes rather than flat out declares – that his whole story about Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist and running through the calling of his disciples, exercising demons, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, and culminating in his death and the declaration of his resurrection (but no appearance!)…is all just the beginning.

The story of the good news of Jesus Christ, that is, continues… to this day… and among our people! And given the headlines and scandal and upheaval and unrest and general anxiety of these days, that comes to me as such a timely and important word.

Which leads me to wonder if we might ask our people to pause amid the frantic and joyful preparations of the season to be reminded that God is still with them, working through them, continuing the story of the good news among and in and with them…and will keep at it well after this season concludes. We might remind them, that is, that this story is bigger than the news stories we hear or the worries we harbor or even the hopes we share.

God is not done. We are not yet what we have been called to be. The promise of Christmas is bigger than we’d imagined. And God’s mercy and courage and blessing extends farther and deeper than we can imagine. For this, Dear Partner, is all just the beginning!

Blessings to you as you proclaim…and live…this life-changing promise, now and throughout this season and new year of God’s grace. Thank you for your fidelity and courage.

Yours in Christ,

PS: New York Times Religion columnist Peter Steinfels wrote an intriguing piece on Auden’s “For the Time Being” in 1990, and you can find it here. You can also find at the following link the larger context for the portion of the poem I quoted above (you’ll need to scroll down a bit).