Well, it has officially begun. Some of you are reading this after a full morning of standing in lines, fighting the crowds, and scoring some good deals on Christmas gifts. Some of you will spend your day trimming the tree, hanging lights on the house, and hanging stockings on the mantle. Others are still trying to shake off the “food coma” from yesterday’s feasting or anticipating the matchups of rivalry weekend in college football. Today may be the official day to break out those holiday albums and crank up everyone’s favorite Christmas jams…or is it?
According to the Church Calendar, we aren’t quite there yet. The liturgical calendar dates back to some time in the fourth or fifth century and is used by many Christians around the world to divide the year according to the contours of Jesus’ life. It begins in the weeks leading up to Christmas, known as Advent, and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. The year culminates in “Christ the King Sunday” where we crown Jesus as the true and rightful King.
Therefore, Christians might rightly greet one another this Sunday with, “Happy New Year” as we begin a new church year with the start of Advent. The question remains, though, what is Advent and how do we celebrate it?
The term “advent” comes from a Latin word “adventus” which means “arrival” or “coming.” Advent is a season of waiting and longing. It is a season of expectation and hope. Frederick Buechner describes it this way: “The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised the baton . . . The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”
During Advent, we anticipate the unique and life-changing ways that God breaks into our world. Christians have traditionally recognized this coming on three different levels. On the first level, Advent joins with the Israelites who waited in expectation for the coming of God’s Messiah – the one who would deliver the people, set things aright, and usher in God’s kingdom of peace. In Advent, we don’t rush to the manger, but we wait in pregnant anticipation during this season for the time to be fulfilled.
Isaiah becomes the patron prophet of the season, infusing us with hope of the “child born unto us” whose name is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah reminds us that this is not a time of wishful niceties and personalized spirituality. Isaiah lays out hope for a radical change in earthly politics that will be bent towards the justice and peace of God’s reign – the day when the oppressed will be set free and the oppressor held to account; the day when the hungry will be filled and the naked clothed; the day when the voiceless will be given a voice and the forgotten will be remembered. With Isaiah, we join in hope for that day during Advent.
On another level, Advent is about the expectation and hope of Christ’s return. Advent spirituality recognizes that, even though God showed up in a unique way on that first Christmas, it wasn’t the end of the story. Our world still staggers along under the weight of violence, murders, wars, espionage, lies, hunger, homelessness, and the like. Hospitals are full of those bent by the weight of illness; psychiatric wards are filled with the mentally ill; rehab centers filled with those shackled by addiction; and prisons are filled with lawbreakers. The poor are bent under the weight of systems that are stacked against them while the rich get richer.
By faith, we hope in these days that God’s Kingdom – the kingdom inaugurated in the first advent of Christ – will be fulfilled in his second advent. By faith, we wait and hope for Christ’s return when earthly evil will be judged and done away with for good. By faith, we exercise our vision of a new world, ordered by God’s justice, peace, and abundance.
On a third level, Advent is a time to prepare for the birth of Christ in our own hearts and lives. Advent spirituality is centered on the process of conversion. Conversion is the ongoing work of the spiritual life – to exchange our natural tendencies of selfishness for service, bitterness for pardon, score keeping for grace, and to pattern our life after the life of Christ. Conversion, in the true sense, is more than a one time prayer or act. It is a way of living in the world each day, a continuous state of being, a moment-by-moment existence in Christ.
More than anything else, Advent fights against our tendency to rush. It is about waiting patiently and, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advised, “trust[ing] in the slow work of God.” Therefore, take some time to slow down and recognize the seed God has placed in your heart. Take some time in these weeks to name your hopes and dreams – for your own life, for the life of your family, and for the broader world in which we live.
Advent reminds us that God does not come upon us by force or seek to ravish us. Instead, God woos us in vulnerability if we will only keep silent long enough to hear the invitation.