Today marks the beginning of Advent. And I am really excited.
I have always loved this time of year– Advent– but I have not always appreciated the significance of it. Growing up, Advent was always presented to me as the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We lit the candles, read the Scripture, and waited for Christmas. But that’s all it was– a fancy name for Christmas and the time of waiting for the celebration of the birth. I never fully understood, grasped, or appreciated the significance of Advent until I got older and began fully appreciating the liturgy of Church history. (I will save my rant about how lamentable it is that so many “mainstream evangelical” churches have walked away from liturgical traditions and lectionary preaching in favor of topical sermons with “more relatable” content and service structures for another time, but don’t worry, I have one.) Because our straying from these rich traditions have led to us losing our deep understandings and appreciations for Advent. Advent is not the same as Christmas, and it has a deeper meaning than just the four weeks which lead up to Christmas.
In today’s Church culture, Christmas has become synonymous with Advent. And in today’s anti-Church culture, Christmas has become a commercialized, materialistic, celebration neglecting the birth of Christ and replacing it with presents, trees, and chaos. (Another rant for another time). Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas– even the commercialization of it, sometimes. I love the snow covered trees, the smell of cookies in the oven, the sound of the carols playing as I finish up my endless amounts of homework, the time spent with family, the Starbucks holiday drinks (Can you tell I’m sitting in a Starbucks as I write this?), and even on occasion the commercialization used by companies to sell more products (no, I don’t need 6 mugs that are Christmas themed, but I’m going to buy them anyway because they are cute. And I definitely do not need all the decorations and other things I can only use at Christmas time and have to store in a box in my basement the rest of the year, but that fact probably won’t stop me from buying more every year.) My favorite part of the Christmas season has always been spending time with my family and friends, the time to relax while setting up all the decorations, and the Christmas Eve service at my church which reminds me of the gift of Christ’s birth.
And that’s all great. Yes, Christmas is about the birth of Christ– or more exactly, the Incarnation. It’s not just Christ being born, because it is not just an ordinary birth, but it’s about God becoming flesh as Christ enters into the created world to bring about restoration and salvation by giving Godself over to death and inaugurating the kingdom of God come to Earth– a fully human and fully God agent of salvation. But, that’s all theological jargon that probably deserves its own post, so I’m going to leave it at that for now. So, being reminded of this idea during the Christmas Eve service, and the weeks leading up to it, is good and important. But, sometimes it just feels like weeks of preparation for a birthday party. And, while the “birthday” part of Advent is important, it is not the only part.
I read a blog the other day that, as well as being inspiration for this post of mine, probably lays out my points better than I will, and is worth the read. But, it challenged me to consider Advent in a new light, confirmed many of my recent internal struggles with the season by reassuring me that I was not alone in my thinking, and reminded me of the reality of the time.
Advent marks the beginning of the Church’s liturgical calendar. For those, who, like me, love liturgy (even though I am admittedly not as familiar with it as I wish I were), it means starting again. Leaving ordinary time and beginning a time of expectation– a waiting. It’s a waiting for the Nativity– the birth of Christ at Christmas– but it is also a waiting for the second coming. It sets us up for the coming of Christ, and sets the stage for the rest of the liturgical year where we remember the events of salvation history– of which Christ is the center. The birth becomes the first major event in salvation history, but it is the time leading up to it of which Advent reminds us.
During Advent, we read Scriptures which remind us of the time of expectation and preparation before the coming of Christ– the time when God’s people were waiting in hope, amidst darkness, exile, sin, and foreign rule. They remind us that this hope was fulfilled in Christ. We are also reminded that this hope continues to dwell in our hearts daily. We now live in a time of darkness, separation, sin, and evil powers. The Scriptures remind us that Christ is with us daily as we live in the brokenness of the world. We remember the inauguration of God’s kingdom on Earth, as we strive to continue kingdom building work alongside God, and remain hopeful for Christ’s second coming when the kingdom is perfectly restored and God dwells alongside us. We are expecting Christ and the peace, joy, and love that came and will come alongside Christ as we try to make these a reality in the world and in our own lives.
And Advent is about living in this tension– this “already but not yet” of God’s restoration and kingdom– the time between. The thing about Advent, the thing that we so often tend to forget, is that we must live in this tension, and Advent gives us permission to live there. In fact, it demands we live there. It demands we remember the darkness of our past and face the reality of our current darkness. While we celebrate Christmas as the entrance of Light, we cannot look past the present darkness. Isaiah, the Psalms, and even the New Testament remind us of our ever-present darkness, but also remind us to be hopeful because the Light is closer than we think. We begin the liturgical year reminded of hope, but also reminded of the necessity of this hope. Because the world is imperfect– it’s broken, chaotic, messy, and imperfect. And we are living in the middle of it, doing our best to live in the reality of the Incarnation– in the knowledge that Christ has come and brought hope, peace, joy, freedom, and the inauguration of God’s kingdom. But we are also living in the reality that the work is not complete and Christ will return– a future hope.
Advent is not just Christmas. It’s not just the four weeks leading up to Christmas where we think about presents, trees, or even just the birth of Christ. It is a sacred, holy time in which we are reminded to live in patient expectation as we reflect the Light which entered our world at Christmas. We wait for the celebration of the pinacle of the season– Christmas. Yet, each week, we remain contemplative and reflective on the what and the why of Christmas– the Christmas that is about not only the birth of Christ, but about all that comes with that birth; the hope, the joy, the peace, the kingdom coming, and the defeat of sin and death. We begin our Liturgical year (or end our calendar year) with minds challenged and hearts calmed as we remember and strive to discover new ways to live in the reality of the tension. We are to become bearers of Christ’s light amidst the darkness in which we are living. And Advent calls us to remember that the birth of Christ is a reality, but so is the future returning. And in the meantime we must live in the reality of salvation and the tension of darkness.. And that is what we are hoping and waiting for during Advent.