Halifax, Nova Scotia, right on the edge of the Atlantic, has the second deepest, largest, ice-free harbor in the world, second only to Sydney, Australia. Thousands of people, tens of thousands, disembarked from ships into the vast interior of Canada, hoping for peaceful lives, far from the tumult and wars of the countries from which they had come.
It was in Halifax that I thought to look at the lessons for Advent 1, hoping for good news. I’m in the market for good news. I imagine that you are, too. Did you think that on the first Sunday in Advent you might find respite from whatever bothers you? I mean, with children lighting the first candle, and the beautiful purple and blue liturgical hangings. Maybe you’d find something more light-hearted in Mark than last Sunday’s sheep and the goats, Matthew’s end-of-time story, with its weapon of fear and damnation.
But here we are in Mark: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the angels will gather the elect from the four winds.” It sounds like tumult in the heavens.
In Halifax, I seek out the city’s history in a museum, but it’s not history. It’s bloodlust. I find nothing but war, one after another, one occupation after another, one deportation right on the heels of the last one. It crosses my mind that there must be a flaw in human DNA. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel just shy of despair for the future, and in an act of self-preservation, I often avoid the news.
Back in Seattle, I pick up a copy of The New Yorker to read the cartoons and scan the articles, and right away I come to a photo of a family, an unusual two-page color spread, an entire family, all four of them carried in coffins. David Remnick, with the cachet of an influential editor, writes: “On October 18th, I take a taxi to the office of the Israel Defense Forces, a heavily guarded compound in Tel Aviv. The scene outside is an open-air, national shiva.”
A man just back from the U.S., from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard says that he found his colleagues “frozen” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, scared that the discussion might go sideways. That is, one might be perceived as a traitor or antisemitic. People surround a 42-year old nurse whose his wife and children are hostages, and he delivers a message, his intent for vengeance. A retired Army general says, “If there’s something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it’s that what happened in Europe seventy years ago is here.”
David Remnick goes on: “I visit a scholar of Islamic philosophy in East Jerusalem. He lives in a neighborhood that has been under assault for years. His father was governor of Jerusalem, and for centuries, the family have been the Muslim custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City. He’s Palestinian, yet he understands Jewish history and anxiety, but he’s worn out and apprehensive. “We have made so many advances—in medicine, technology, A.I., everything except human relations.” He shrugs. “No matter what, we will end up where we started. “It’s like in the wars in the Middle Ages.”
Yesterday afternoon I stood on 2nd avenue while a couple thousand people walked by, chanting and carrying signs: “Your taxes are funding genocide” and “You should be angry,” and “Stop bombing children.” And what immediately came to me is written in Mark: “Jesus told them, ‘Let the children come to me, for to such belong the kingdom of God.’” As I walk back up 2nd., I walk behind a woman with a sign on her back that says, “Fiber artist for peace.” One small button says, “Stop bombing children.” The other says, in Hebrew, “Shalom.” The woman has created fiber art for her sign in the shape of Palestine, the holy land, the promised land.
Consider that Israel has a lot of enemies; consider that unemployment in Gaza is forty-five per cent; that antisemitism keeps growing, that in Gaza, the medical system has collapsed.
David Remnick ends by saying, “There will be no end to it anytime soon: the funerals, the recriminations, the threats, the fear, the assaults.” I stop here to ask if you have clarity about these ambiguities. Where is the tender branch putting out its leaves, a sign that summer is near? Where is regeneration and respite? At what point do the wars end? Where is the hope?
Is it any wonder that we come to this place, many of us filled with unspoken, unacknowledged fear? Is it any wonder that we look for distraction, on the lookout for good news, here on the edge of the darkness of December?
“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven…”. Mark looks up to the sky for a metaphor, to its mystery and beauty, these sunlit blue days, the full moon last week, with Jupiter nearby. And after all that I have said, all the loss and despair, believe it or not, there’s good news in the gospel. For Mark, who knew Jesus and wrote the first gospel not long after his life, there are no sheep and no goats, there’s no judgement, and there’s no language like “eternal damnation” to make us feel afraid.
“And the angels will gather the elect from the four winds.” The elect in Mark are all the people who have faith, who follow the way. Those who keep the faith are the elect and will be gathered into the people of God, however you understand that. This passage is an entreaty to persevere, to endure, to proclaim the gospel. Here is clarity. Here is hope. And then Mark asks, “When? He ends in Jerusalem, after all the miracles, after Jairus’s little daughter, and Legion among the tombs, after the epileptic child, whose father says, “I believe; help my unbelief.
It’s a vision that Mark lays out, a peaceful kingdom, two days before Passover, gathered at the table of the leper Simon, just before an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with oil from an alabaster jar, just before the upper room, just before the last supper, just before Gethsemane, and Mark says, “What I say to you, I say to all: it’s coming. The angels. In the middle of evil, of war and despair, remember “the holy angels, gathering up the elect from the ends of the earth and the ends of the heavens.” Watch. Hold on. Stay awake. Take heart.
I will rise and go to Jesus, he will embrace me in his arms, in the arms of my dear savior, Oh, there are ten thousand charms.