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An Advent Message from the Bishop

The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

Portents and promises.  Both are in vivid display in the scriptural texts for Advent, creating a kind of spiritual whiplash as we move from Isaiah’s forbidding image in Advent 1 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake…” Isaiah 64) to the prophet’s words of hope in Advent 2 (“Comfort, O comfort my people”… Isaiah 40).  More troubling, and perhaps more spiritually wrenching – are the contemporary portents that seem to emerge everywhere we look.  We have an economy in a fierce tailspin; which is a unique form of violence, in that people are literally cut off – from their jobs, from their assets, from their plans for the future.  And physical violence seems to be more present and portentous – and is literally closer to home:  the shooting in a Clifton church on November 23 took the life of the cousin of a son-in-law of one of our priests.   A recent murder victim in Newark was a regular guest at the soup kitchen community at Christ Church, Belleville.

In the wake of it all, I find myself becoming consumed by the narrative of scarcity.  There is a part of me that expects the worst – and so I put up psychic fortifications for the next siege.  And there is another part of me that simply wants someone to wake me up when it is all over.   These are understandable, and some might say, necessary responses.

And Jesus won’t have it.  Jesus says over and over again, but especially during times of Advent portents -- stay awake.  Stay awake for the promise – and the hope and the gift.  It’s coming.  Prepare for turmoil, yes, because trials and tribulations are inevitable and very real – but they are fleeting; and are not, and will not, be the defining experience of a loving God.

For me, Advent has long seemed to be designed – through a unique combination of biblical texts, increasingly cold weather and deepening darkness, to be a spiritual referendum on where I find my security.  Advent invites all of us to look beyond the menu of the world’s security offerings – IRAs, jobs, safe communities – which are important and necessary, and for the most part are the only places we have been trained to search … to look beyond those promises – which cannot always be fulfilled, to God’s promise of blessing and hope – which our spiritual ancestors have taught us is more than enough to live on.

Thirty years ago, I heard a sermon by the Rev. Gardner Taylor, then the Pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn.  For decades, Gardner Taylor’s name always ended up at the top of the list of the country’s best preachers.  He certainly won my vote – and that of the seminary community which gathered to hear him.  He told a story of being the “warm-up preacher” for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in a church in Selma, Alabama, the night before a Civil Rights march.  The church was packed with local people who were looking for inspiration and preparation for the courageous – and dangerous, witness they were going to make the next day.

In the middle of Gardner Taylor’s sermon, the lights went out.  People braced for the worst – fully expecting that the doors would burst open and a group of armed vigilantes would storm in and wreak violent havoc.  It had happened before.  Gardner Taylor confessed to being stunned into vocal and physical paralysis -- until a soft, clear older woman’s voice cut through the silence:  “Preach on, preacher; we can still see Jesus in the dark.”

I pray that each of us can look through the darkness of this season and see and claim --and share, Christ’s life-giving light.  That is God’s unyielding promise.

In peace,

+Mark M. Beckwith