You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
For most of the time I have lived in Philadelphia – more than ten years now – I have been aware of the presence of an unusual character who regularly passes through the neighborhood here. I have no idea if he lives nearby, or if he is also seen and known in other parts of the city. I can’t say I see him every day; but three or four times a week would not be unusual. And sometimes I don’t see him; I only hear him, so I know he is nearby. He is a trim, fit fellow of indeterminate age – he could be in his 50s, but he could be in his 60s – it’s hard to say. He wears runner’s tights, with short, runner’s shorts over them, and usually high socks, as well. I think he always has a cap on his head, and usually there is a set of small headphones over his cap, covering his ears. Whether or not the headphones are connected to anything, I cannot say; it is not immediately apparent that they are. And he has a small backpack on his back. The colors of his close-fitting outfit are muted, not outrageous - blues and blacks and greys. The get-up, which seldom changes very much, is not, I think, intended to draw attention to him. Were it not for two distinct features of his ensemble, he could pass for any very fit but un-stylish, late-middle aged man devoted to his daily exercise.
But there are these two distinct features that render him remarkable.
First, he traverses around the neighborhood – and I can only surmise, around the entire city – on rollerblades. Second, he carries with him a trumpet, upon which he occasionally blows short, loud blasts of a note or two, never an entire tune. I am not at all sure he knows how to play the trumpet, although I have seen him carry one for years. But he does know how to get a bit of noise out of the instrument. And he rolls around the city sounding blasts from his trumpet, for no apparent reason.
Actually, I am being a little un-truthful in this description, for, in fact, a month or two ago, the rollerblading man gave up his trumpet in favor of a French horn, which appears a bit newer and shinier than the trumpet he once carried. As was the case with the trumpet, one cannot say for certain that the man knows how to play the French horn. One can only say that he does indeed know how to evince short, mellow blasts from the French horn, which almost evoke in the hearer’s mind hunting scenes in the Bavarian hills, but not quite. I’m not sure what made the man forsake his trumpet in favor of the French horn. I don’t think it’s the holidays, for I don’t ever recall noticing in years gone by seasonal adjustments in his orchestration or his repertoire. And I wouldn’t venture an opinion to the question for which instrument the man demonstrates a keener aptitude. And I must say that I have no idea what the man thinks or hopes he is accomplishing as he wheels his way through the streets of the city.
I wish I knew.
I wish I knew what dream or thought process or voice in his head compelled the man to don an outfit not unlike that of an Olympic bobsledder’s, with headphones either to drown out the sounds of the world, or to provide a soundtrack to his journeys, mount himself on wheels, a brass horn in his hand, and career around the city, blowing one-note fanfares as he goes. And I wish I knew what made him change instruments. Maybe the French horn was a gift!
I wonder if he is a religious man. I wonder if he is a Christian of some variety (for we come in many varieties). I wonder if he reads the scriptures, and I wonder if he does, how does he read them? I wonder if his get-up, and his skating circuits around the city are born of religious conviction. I wonder if is his trumpet blasts – or more recently the blasts from his French horn – are meant to sound declarations for which he has no words, or which simply require the announcement of a brass section. I wonder what he thinks he knows that I don’t know… if that’s why he does what he does.
Because I have nothing else to call him, and because it suits my purposes, I am going to call him Advent Man. And because I have never had the opportunity to ask him, I am going to imagine what it is he believes. I am going to imagine what he hears through his headphones, and what he sees in his dreams. I am going to imagine what he carries in his little backpack.
I imagine that Advent Man lives in a state of perpetual preparedness - ready to go at a moment’s notice, ready to get wherever it is he’s going faster than the next guy, and ready to sound the alarm – whatever it may signify. He is ready! He is Advent Man, hear his horn!
I imagine that what Advent Man hears through his headphones may be the Gospel reading for today: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” I imagine he hears these verses in pronounced by the voice of Sir Alec Guiness.
Or maybe it’s the voice of Morgan Freeman in his head: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Stand up! Raise up your heads!
I imagine that inside Advent Man’s little backpack is some water and a few power bars – just enough to tide him over if he is caught unawares for a day or two. And maybe a rain jacket and a nice warm fleece.
I imagine that Advent Man has dreams very much like yours and like mine, and if he ever dreams of God, he dreams that God loves him, and searches him out, because I imagine that Advent Man knows he is like a sheep without a shepherd.
I don’t imagine that Advent Man hears voices in his head, other than the ones reading the scriptures to him. I imagine that he hears Betty White telling the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. And James Earl Jones telling the stories of John the Baptist (a particular hero of his, I would guess).
And I imagine that he hears Dame Maggie Smith reading Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’” Wouldn’t you like to hear Maggie Smith deliver those lines? I sure would!
“Stand up! Raise your head!” That I imagine, is the secret message of Advent Man’s horn-blowing: Stand up! Raise your heads!
I imagine that Advent Man doesn’t know how to play either the trumpet or the French horn because he knows it doesn’t matter. When the time comes, God will put the tune in his heart and the notes on his lips! And in the meantime, his short blasts of warning are enough: Stand up! Raise your heads! Your redemption is drawing near!
And here is Advent Man’s greatest secret – not that he knows when the Messiah will come again, but that he knows he is in need of redemption. He knows he is broken, sinful, pig-headed, and selfish. He knows he has done those things he ought not to have done, and left undone those things he ought to have done. And he has spent time, roller-blading around this city, thinking about all these things, recalling his shortcomings, remembering his foolishness, repenting for his sins. All that time on wheels has not led him to reflect on how awesome he is. It has made him realize how much he needs God in his life, and how prone he is to push God away.
Does he race around the city, as he does, in order to keep the wind in his face, to dry the tears as he recalls his own sinfulness? And do the tears turn joyful when he hears, somewhat surprisingly, these words again - “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” – read by Oprah? Who’s to account for the voices that proclaim the Gospel inside his head? What’s important is that they grab his attention. They get him out of bed every morning. They loosen his fingers when they feel stiff, lacing up his rollerblades. They remind him to raise his head, when he looks in the mirror, and to keep it raised throughout the day. And they keep repeating the promise: your redemption is drawing near. Your redemption is drawing near. Your redemption is drawing near.
Advent is a time of warning and caution. It is a call to repentance and a reminder of our human frailty, foolishness and selfishness. But it is also a reminder of God’s promises.
Advent asks, why did you get up early to shop on Black Friday but you won’t get up to worship me?
Advent asks why you spent $1.5 billion on Cyber Monday and put $5 in the offering plate for God?
Advent asks what you mean when you call yourself a Christian?
Advent asks what it is you are hoping for?
Advent asks if you think you love God, are you ready to meet him? Do you want to?
And Advent Man hears all these questions in his head – asked by the reasonable voice of Anderson Cooper, or sometime Walter Cronkite, because Advent Man is old enough to remember what Cronkite sounded like.
He hears all these questions in his head, and he cannot sit still or remain silent, even though he does not yet know where to go or what to say. This is not stupid of Advent Man: this is faithful, which sometimes looks stupid to those who have no interest in a costly faith.
I imagine that Advent Man’s faith is a costly faith: it has cost him everything and boiled his life down to his simple outfit, and his jaunts through the city, and his one-note solos. And I wonder, again, about why he switched from the trumpet to the French horn. I wonder if it’s because, occasionally, once in a very odd while, Advent man hears in his head the Gospel proclaimed by a voice that can be none other than God’s voice: “Stand up! Raise your head! Your redemption is drawing near!”
Maybe to him, God’s voice sounded more like a French horn than a trumpet.
Or maybe it reminded him that the sound of the Gospel never grows stale, but rings out with new timbres and different tones, in new and different times.
I don’t know. I can’t say. I have no idea, in fact, if the man on rollerblades hears anything, or cares one fig for what people think when he blows his horn. He might be carrying in his backpack nothing but a tuna fish sandwich and a Diet Coke, to munch on at lunch time, for all I know. He might not hear any voices articulating the scriptures to him, and he might resent any comparison whatsoever to John the Baptist. He and his dopey horn-blowing might mean nothing at all.
Which means that it may be the voice of God, proclaiming in my ears and yours, and in my heart and yours, and in this place when we gather: Stand up! Raise your heads! Your redemption is drawing near.
Because I hear that ancient message proclaimed, and I pray you do too.
And I am reminded that I am broken, sinful, pig-headed, and selfish. I know that I have done those things I ought not to have done, and left undone those things I ought to have done. And so have you. And sometimes I could use a strong breeze to dry the tears as I reflect on all these things. But in Advent, my tears are turned to tears of joy, if I can just bend my ears and my heart to hear that proclamation carried somehow, mysteriously through the streets of the city: Stand up! Raise your head! Your redemption is drawing near! Your redemption is drawing near! Your redemption is drawing near!
And the voice is unmistakable: it is the voice of Love.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 December 2012