By James Cornwell
A Reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
The season of Advent is a time of preparation; preparation for the trials and tribulations that precede the second coming of Christ, even as we meditate upon his first. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples of the times that they will face — that they will be turned over to suffering and death even by parents and siblings, family and friends. How can we prepare for not just the world “out there” to turn on us, but for those we love to turn on us as well? How can we prepare not just for the hatred of the powers of the world, but also the betrayal by those we love, who betray as Judas did our Lord — with a kiss?
St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians tells us how to wear the three theological virtues — faith, hope, and love — in order to prepare for these tribulations. What is remarkable is where he places the three virtues. Faith and love are placed in the breastplate — the piece of armor that guards our hearts and other important organs. Given the association between love and the heart, perhaps this aspect is unsurprising, but faith? Here faith is placed alongside love in guarding the heart, suggesting that the renunciations and affirmations in our liturgies are primarily a defense against hatred: affirming the creeds, we can turn in love toward those who hate us.
And what of the helmet of hope? St. Paul tells us to guard our minds with hope. Perhaps this is because he knows what we will witness: not just the sudden horrors that shock us, but also the slow-motion disintegration of relational and institutional fabrics. Rust and moths dispirit and enervate, making us give up the fight. Instead we should guard our minds with hope, that even as we as the Church militant challenge the forces of darkness, we will gain our lives through our endurance — even or especially if we lose them.
James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.
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Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil
Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas