Digging Deeper: Christmas Advent 2015
It’s Advent Time: Welcome to Waiting
“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isa. 64:4).
It’s time for Advent. Advent is both a matter of fact and a matter of festivity. The Church believes the fact of Christ’s Advent determines the course of history: Christ has come and Christ will come again. We greet an otherwise uncertain future with hope, because Christ is there to receive us. History has taken the shape of a promise. But Advent is also the beginning of the Christian festive year, the Church’s “New Year’s Day.” It begins each year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and concludes on Christmas Day. The word advent means ‘come to’, not simply ‘ to come’ but specifically to ‘come to’. It implies a specific place where anticipation is met with arrival. During the season of Advent, the Church anticipates the second Advent of Christ to the world by remembering his first arrival, and we begin by anticipating it again. So Advent is the season especially set aside for waiting, where we remember how to anticipate God’s promised future and remember that God delivers on his promises.
The Christian liturgical year (see image) revolves around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A few weeks after Christmas the Church enters the season of Lent, which culminates in the Passion Weekend (the Paschal Triduum), concluding on Easter Sunday. Forty days after Easter is the celebration of the ascension of Jesus to his throne in heaven. And finally, fifty days after Easter, the Christian festive year concludes with Pentecost, remembering the day the Holy Spirit flooded the earth and filled the Church, remembering the truth of today. Festivity is not about novelty. It’s about identity.
The time from Pentecost to Advent is called Ordinary Time. The Church spends roughly half its year focused on remembering, indeed reliving, the story, learning who it is. The other half of the year, Ordinary Time, is focused on taking that story to the streets, since it now knows that ‘who it is’ is ‘for the world’, since Christ is for the world. The rhythm of the Christian year is rest and work, celebration and commission—in that order.
This rhythm of life is absolutely essential for Christian formation. It’s God’s design in the first place. The same rhythm of life was embedded into of Israel’s liturgical calendar by law. God commanded Israel both to rest and to party (Lev. 23). People are ashamed of themselves so they assume God is ashamed of them too. So God had to command people to celebrate and rest so that they don’t keep acting like slaves and start making him look like Pharaoh. Israel’s festive year, like the Church’s, revolved around God’s decisive acts of salvation. It began with Passover, remembering their rescue from slavery in Egypt, and continued along seven festivals through which the people relived their story, from the Exodus to the Wilderness Wanderings and on into the Promise Land. The rhythm: rest and work, celebration and commission.
Many churches have unfortunately shied away in recent history from the Church’s festive nature, perhaps ashamed to celebrate when there is so much work to be done or perhaps because they are ashamed of God. But in so doing the Church has suffered from some devastating memory loss, forgetting things like Jesus saves and God is sovereign. The Church’s festive seasons are designed to help us shore up our memory, to “take care lest [we] forget the Lord [our] God who brought [us] out…of the house of slavery” and end up repeating some history other than God’s history, walking toward some future other than the one God has promised, which inevitably leads to nowhere at best but more likely to another god (Ps. 78:10-11; Isa. 51:12-13; Jer. 2:28, 32; Ezek. 16:43; cf. Deut. 6-8). So our times of rest and celebration, retreat and regrouping, are both for our good and the good of the world. The world needs far more than just our service. It needs our celebration. It needs our joy. It needs our Christmas
That is why the unbelievers can’t resist indulging year after year in the Church’s festivities. It’s not our most ‘contextualized’ message the world wants to hear; it’s our least. They want something foreign, because they obviously haven’t found anything native worth celebrating, nothing that endures at least. They can try to disguise it all they want, as though “Happy Holy-days” is any less religious than “Merry Christmas,” as though they aren’t looking for something holy to celebrate like the rest of us. So they don’t want our Christ wrapped in their pragmatism. They want our Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying useless in a manger, just the way we want him. That’s where the world found him in the first place, the day the magi–those pagan astrologist standing over the Jesus on your fireplace–found him, where “they bowed down and worshiped him…opening up their treasures and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” The world has always been drawn to the gift of Christmas. Indeed, it was the first to offer anything back. The world opened up and offered its treasures because it somehow knew that heaven had opened up and offered its Treasure. It took pagans to discover that Christmas really does mean ‘Joy to the World’. And this is simply because the world’s longing is in the exact shape of the Christian hope. Hope is just longing that’s been filled, and the Christmas message endures as the articulation of that longing from the other side of the promise that fills it.
So let us not be outdone. Let us keep the festival! Our festive seasons are becoming more and more important to observe in times when festivity seems less and less appropriate, when there’s much to be done and much to be grieved, when there is terrorism and when there are refugees, when it begins to look like the world could only be changed if God himself would come and save it—it is when God must come that we most need to remember that He has come, to believe that he will come. The world of exile is longing for the God of Exodus.
So when wars are unwinnable and homelessness is beyond help, it’s time for Advent. When the prognosis is irreversible and dad still hasn’t called, it’s time for Advent. When the sky won’t send any rain to the fields and the ultrasound won’t send the waiting couple any light, it is time for Advent. When love proves weaker than grief and Goodbye proves more enduring then Hello, it is time for Advent. When we have no choice but to wait, it is time to begin waiting one the one “who acts for those who wait on him” (Isa. 64:4).
And so it is time. It’s time to remember the God who has come who will come again. It’s time to enter again the world of waiting, the world of promise, the world where God is coming to bring to us an incomparably greater world—this one.