by Bill Rowley
Advent was, for me, growing up, a time of delightful anticipation. Our Advent calendar often had chocolates behind the doors and my brother and I looked forward every night to opening one up – looking forward to Christmas. And this is the picture that our culture promotes, starting just after Halloween, ratcheting up the jollity as Christmas approaches.
Given that background, I still sometimes find the lectionary preceding Christmas to be a splash of cold water. Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, and the lectionary for this week really rams that home.
In Isaiah 64:
Behold you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been for a long time and shall we be saved?
Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.
In Psalm 80,
Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
In the Gospel of Mark 13:
Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
If the birth of Christ is one of the most joyous events in history, why do we count down the days in solemnity?
I want to briefly explain how I understand the observation of Advent.
It is easy to think of the Incarnation as a thin theological proposition: the Logos, the fully divine second person of the Trinity, took on a fully human nature. It’s easy for the more academically minded to get stuck there – lost in the wonder of the paradoxes this proposition raises or the statements of the Ecumenical Councils as they progressively refined our understanding of this truth.
But for all of the value of thinking through those weighty issues, the actual story of the Bible rarely touches on these wonders. Instead, the story is told in language much like the Old Testament readings of this week. At the end of the Old Testament, we are left with the remnants of the kingdom of Judah, a small piece of the sprawling Persian Empire, having rebuilt the Temple, but the glory of God having never returned to dwell in it. The literal exile ended, but Israel remained in spiritual exile and longed for God to intervene in history to vindicate them, redress the injustices done to them, and to forgive them.
This was the context for the coming of the Logos, for God becoming man. Jesus steps into salvation history to, in his ministry, death, and resurrection, proclaim and enact the return from exile, including the coming of the Kingdom and the forgiveness of sins. It is particular, historical, and unrepeatable.
This connects with Advent in that the waiting for the coming of Jesus was painful. In Advent we are asked to reinhabit the waiting of Israel. Generations of Judeans prayed and sacrificed, hoping in faith for the restoration that had yet to come. These, like Simeon and Anna, read and prayed the words of Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80 in ways we can only dimly and retrospectively imagine.
But we have our own experience of waiting. We await his second coming, another particular, historical, and unrepeatable event. Until then we suffer sickness, unemployment, injustices, and perhaps even death. We don’t know when he will come, but we wait in faith and pray in hope. We work to be ready on that great day, as Jesus exhorts us. Advent asks us to see our waiting for the second coming in light of the waiting of Israel for its deliverance.
And it is fitting that sometimes we remember these periods of yearning in our worship: draping the church in somber colors, praying penitential prayers, and fasting. And by doing so we layer time – life itself – with world-changing meaning. This is why I love the church calendar. It is a drama which we act out together over the course of the year. Each season is a new act, layered with meaning. In our imaginations and rituals, we step back in time and relive moments in history, trying to appreciate their spiritual significance. In Advent, particularly, we relive waiting for the deliverance of Israel – the forgiveness of sins. And in remembering God’s faithful vindication of Israel, we color our own anticipation of God’s faithfulness in coming again in the future.
However you mark Advent, I hope you find time this to step back from the crush of life to ponder and pray through the meaning of this season: whether you do that through fasting or popping chocolates out of a calendar.
Let us pray:
Father of all and God of history, we pray that this Advent you teach us how to wait in faithfulness, to sift ourselves for sources of unholiness and unreadiness, so that we will be found, like Simeon and Anna, ready for your second coming.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.