The Gift of Advent
If someone forced me to choose whether I would declare myself to be an “Easter Christian” or “Christmas Christian,” without doubt I would come down on the side of Christmas.
I love Christmas. And it’s not just because I love the whole joyful, sparkling, pagan-spangled, Bethlehem-bound discombobulation we call the Christmas season. Nor is it only because Christmas points to the central mystery of Christian faith, the incarnation of God. It is also because I find myself, along with all of those who have dwelt in great darkness for weeks amid the most hauntingly beautiful of our hymns and evocative of prophetic utterances, at long last emerging into a great light.
Advent is the season of doleful expectation, so true to our human experience, that makes me look forward to and love Christmas so much.
For some, I know, Advent tends be little more than the shabby waiting room outside the doctor’s office, strewn with out-of-date magazines, a television blaring carols and visions of sugar plums to distract us from the clock. But Advent is so much more.
Advent is the season that reins us in and holds us back, incessantly saying, “Not yet!” True. And, it is for this very reason that Advent makes Christmas worth the wait.
Advent blesses the waiting. Advent demonstrates liturgically the paradoxical wonder of waiting for the God who is present to show up.
This year I would encourage us to immerse ourselves even more fully into the waiting and not to rush prematurely and headlong into Christmas.
Despite the siren songs of our commercial culture that displayed Christmas decorations shortly after Halloween, I encourage us to enter into these days of expectation as fully as possible, to feel the weight of waiting “between the times.”
We live in a world of terrors and fears, in an age of anxieties and worries. There is so much hatred and violence, suspicion and insecurity. So many wars, so many rumors of war, and conflicts without number. “Upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity… Human hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming to pass on earth,” as we are reminded in a text often read during Advent. (Luke 21:25f)
Of course, these words could describe (and have described) virtually every age since the author of Luke’s Gospel first put ink to papyrus. “It’s an inconvenient time” sang Nanci Griffith years ago. It always is “an inconvenient time.”
Living “between the times” has always been inconvenient. It is what we Christians have long done and still do. We live suspended between the first coming of Christ and the end of the ages. This is what Advent enacts.
In the midst of this moment, I suggest we allow Advent to speak to us and to speak for us in its own plaintive voice. Advent speaks in the voice of disenchanted hope on the threshold of the enchantment of Christmas. It beckons us to pause here with the God who waits with us for God’s full deliverance of creation.
There are gifts to purchase, travel plans to finalize, and celebrations with families and friends to be organized. At the very same time, let us also be as fully present as possible in this moment of Advent. For the sake of our souls, for the sake our communities, and for the sake of our world, let us allow the ancient prophets their moment. Let us feel our exile in these Advent-Lenten lands and hold here the shadow side of hope.
To this end, I encourage us to pray the collect designated in the Book of Common Prayer for the first Sunday in Advent, as the BCP itself recommends, each day throughout this season of Advent until Christmas Eve:
“Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.”
And as we pray this prayer daily, I encourage us to attend to the strange and remarkable message that underlies this Collect: the grace we need to cast away darkness and put on the armor of light is a grace which God gives us.
We simply don’t have it in ourselves to live in hope. This is the gift of God. This too is the gift of Advent.