In the previous two posts, we have reflected on how we view and move through time. I introduced the Christian calendar, which was the way early Christians recruited time to be a tool for transformation rather than just a passive marker syncopating society.
In this post, I’m introducing Advent. Advent may not be a new word for most, but the themes of the season are slightly more complex and interwoven than they first may appear.
Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus meaning “coming”… the coming of Jesus celebrated at Christmas! It may seem trite to rehearse the expectation of Jesus again, like being forced to politely feign surprise when you already know what’s inside the gift you’re opening. But the repetition and rehearsal of this story is not just to commemorate something in the past; instead, it’s to train us how to live in the present and to long for a new future.
Advent, traditionally, is the time that the church year begins. Maybe you find the idea that the new year has, in fact, already begun simultaneously exhausting and disorienting. Maybe you’re anticipating entering in to a slow Christmas season, to celebrate and prepare for the new year (with champagne and party poppers) before you rally yourself again for the activities of 2019. But, there is something significant about advent being a slower and more reflective beginning to the year for Christians.
Training in Faithful Longing
Advent is a long season, much longer than Christmastide or Easter, the seasons where Christians rightly celebrate. In contrast, Advent is a training camp for our waiting, longing, and desires. It trains our countenances as we carry those very human experiences within ourselves. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter… a Fast before a Feast.
More often than waiting and slowness, this season is filled with consumerist hurry, end of year events, and financial overextension. Our secular calendars are so heavily burdened by connections to our wider social networks, we are left burnt out and exhausted at our own family’s Christmas dinner table. The craziness of the season is well encapsulated by the title of a song by the band Arcade Fire, “Everything Now”! Yet, advent is, for those being trained by the Christian Calendar, trying to teach us to begin our year a quite different way.
In contrast to the “everything now” consumer culture, advent is attuning us to the things that we don’t have, and in fact, can’t have by our own means or strength. Advent is about a waiting and expectation for the things that money cannot buy and for a day that humans cannot progress themselves towards.
Who was, and Is, and Is to Come
Advent is teaching us to wait for the comings of Christ. The first is a rehearsal; it is implicitly an honouring of the many generations of God’s people who waited faithfully for Messiah…for One God would send to set the people free and the world right. We enter into the longings of Israel to see how God’s people sustained hope in the darkness while they waited for God’s coming dawn. As we observe the faithful longing of the prophets and people like Simeon, we are reminded that even good godly people can spend their entire lives waiting for the good things of God.
This is a deeply counter cultural message for today’s consumeristic mantra… which has grafted itself into our Christianity and deceives us that we can have (and indeed deserve) everything now. Instead, we are reminded that God’s extension of his coming is an act of grace, not of judgement.
The second coming (the one that so few of us are willing to bring up these days in Christian circles because of varying perceptions of eschatology and seeming divisiveness of the end times thinking) is intended to be the primary focus of advent for Christians. Far from the meek and mild expectation of a baby in a manger, we are called to stir up our longings and expectations for that day when Christ will return to bring justice and his unmitigated rule and reign on the Earth.
As we look forward and anticipate that inbreaking light of God’s coming, we also are called to take account of the darkness that surrounds us… that is even within us. As opposed to Christmas, which invites us to rejoice in Emmanuel (God with us), Advent invites us to take a good hard look at the ways in which things are not right on this earth and in our lives and can only be made right fully and finally by the second coming of Christ. This again, is deeply counter-cultural in the ways in which it seeks to liberate us from the deception that we can make things happen “for ourselves” and by our own effort alone.
As you can already see, these themes are not exactly creating a season that stir the more traditional senses of what we have come to call “the Christmas spirit”. But unless we take a true and unflinching account of the darkness and our desperate need for a Saviour, we are at risk of calling our current comforts and status-quo’s God’s kingdom come. That would be a grave mistake, not just for our own lives but for the lives of so many others in our world who much more tangibly experience the reality that God’s kingdom is, in fact, not yet.
The traditional Christian calendar is peppered with more festivals than one can remember; yet, it’s seasons of waiting, lamenting, and expectation that are significantly longer if you count their continuous days. This is because, in one sense, the time in between the first and second coming of Christ is one long and extended Advent. God has initiated his coming, and yet the fullness of what will be is nowhere near being seen.
Losing our Appetite for God’s Future
Advent is training us for our entire Christian lives which are marked by our longings, desires, and expectations of the fullness of God to come about. The discipline of longing and expectation (even if it does not spontaneously arise in the season) begins to form like muscle over the years of our practice. These repetitions, year in and year out, help us to order our desires and direct our longings towards the coming of Christ rather than the temporary and passing comforts that can so easily be the ends of our desires.
When I was a child, my family spent Christmas with dear and wealthy friends. They had a large house for us to stay; we knew they were going to buy us wonderful presents, and the Christmas Day meal would be a feast like we had never seen before! The luxurious meal was full of joy and yearly traditions, such as the inherently risky “find the penny in the Christmas pudding” game. It was also my first introduction to the idea of “courses” in a meal. I saw a large tray of “pigs wrapped in blankets” (a glorious British invention involving sausages wrapped in bacon) and indulged with abandon as the meal was prepared. When the meal began, the first course came, and then the second… all more elaborate and excitingly presented than the last. As an enthusiastic and hungry 7-year old, not really understanding how many courses might be on their way, to say I overindulged during the first two courses would be a severe understatement! By the time that the main course had come, I could hardly look at another piece of food… even if it was the turkey (that had been slowly roasting for the previous 12 hours), stuffing, gravy, and roast potatoes. I was that full.
I had become satisfied with the foretaste of the main event and, in doing so, lost my appetite for the end goal and crescendo of the whole meal. This story is a mirror of a dynamic at play for those of us that live in relative prosperity and comfort, which I anticipate to be the majority of us reading this blog post. Such present comforts can inoculate us to the very real and desperate need for Christ’s second coming. Advent trains us, whether we feel like it or not, to order our desires and longings towards the final hope of Christ, rather than anything more passing in this in-between age.
Isaiah writes, “Those in Darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). Those of us, in relative wealth, ease and comfort can settle for lesser lights. The comforts that surround us can create a kind of spiritual light pollution where, ironically, some lesser lights prevent us from seeing the true light which brings light to all and has come into the world (John 1:9). It is not that the lesser lights of this season are bad (food, family, and gifts). In fact, they may be very good! But, in order for the light of Christmas to truly shine, Advent reminds us to take stock of the true darkness that surrounds us that we might be attuned to our great need for an Emmanuel.
Are you Looking for a resource to help walk you through Advent? You can get one created by fellow YWAMers online by going to sourceviewbible.com and clicking on “SourceView Reader” option in the menu area, and then under “Discovery Starters”.