Advent has a moving, double focus. We focus on the coming of Christ, both as he came, the babe of Bethlehem and as he promises to come again at the end of all things. The readings in church on this first Sunday in Advent made this clear, as we heard the challenging verses of Mark chapter 13 verses 24 to the end. This passage, in which Jesus speaks of the end of all things, but paradoxically calls his disciples to hope, is known to scholars as the ‘little apocalypse’, and its amazing how preachers manage to shy away from it whenever it crops up!
This year I have tentatively begun a new sonnet sequence called ‘Parable and Paradox’ in which I am trying to reflect, as honestly as I can, on the teachings of Jesus as I hear them read to me over the year. So here first is the reading I heard on Sunday, and then the sonnet I have written in response. I was especially moved by the unexpected word ‘tender’, in the midst of all that apocalyptic imagery, when Jesus, in describing the signs of spring in a fig tree, says ‘its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves’.
24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
So we begin to contemplate the End
With shadowed glimpses of apocalypse.
How can we even start to understand?
The heavens shaken, and the vast eclipse
Of everything that we have ever known.
Then, suddenly revealed, the power and glory
Once-veiled in symbols of the lamb and throne,
The all-revealing climax of our story.
About that day, you tell us, no one knows
But we must wake and watch for you, look up.
Yet hidden in this warning you disclose
A tender yearning, a deep stirring hope,
And bid us, in the visions that you bring,
To see the world’s end as a sign of spring.