Advent: A Season of Hopeful Waiting
An Advent Message from Postulant Justin Donathan
I don’t know about you, but this year, more than most, I’ve felt like I’ve been thrust into Advent headlong at breakneck pace. It seems like yesterday that we were eating turkey and celebrating Thanksgiving, yet here we are half way through the Second week of Advent and Christmas is right around the corner. I don’t quite feel ready.
But even beyond my own experience of busyness and stress, when we consider our world it hardly seems time to celebrate, to feast. What began in our own backyard has spread to racial tensions, violence, and tears in cities all over our country. In recent weeks we’ve seen Ebola ravage the West African coast and threaten to spread across the globe. Our brothers and sisters in Christ continue to be persecuted by Isis and Al Qaeda throughout Iraq, Syria, and many other parts of the Middle East. Our own Anglican community is racked by tensions, division, and sin that threaten to wrend any semblance of unity that is left. As the dark and short days of winter have come upon us, at least in my own heart the darkness that remains in our world has weighed heavily.
And what does Advent have to say to that?
A Season of Waiting
Advent bids us to wait. It is a season of hope deferred. A season of holy longing for that which is not yet. This is the penitential aspect of Advent– the reason it is sometimes called little Lent. In Advent we take time to take stock. Before the season of rejoicing that is to come we remember that all is not as it should be– and we mourn that fact. Advent is a time to weep with those who weep. Advent is a time to consider that we ourselves are not yet what we will be. Advent is a time to consider in what ways we have wandered and strayed. Advent is a time to consider the brokenness of our world, to mourn, to lament, to fast and pray, and to cry out, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!”
A Season of Hope
But that’s not all there is to it. Advent is a season of waiting. There is a mournful, aching, longing, element to Advent, no doubt. But as Fr. Doug reminded us on Sunday, there is more to it than that. It is a season of both mourning and hope. Indeed, as Christians our mourning is always suffused with hope. As St. Paul taught the Church at Thessalonica, we do not “grieve as others do, who have no hope” (1 Thes. 4.13). Remember Advent is a time of remembering all of Christ’s comings. And while our waiting for Christ’s glorious return can fill us with a kind of sadness at the ‘not-yet’ aspect of redemption, yet we have a hope that is founded on the fact that Christ has come already. The immortal God has put on human flesh and come and tabernacled among us. Jesus’ birth, the incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, serves as a down payment, a guarantee that he will come again. The God who has begun a good work in this world will see it through to completion. In his life among us Jesus came identifying with us, and in his death on the cross he bore our shame. Finally, with his rising again, triumphant over death and hell he proclaimed their end. And so as we await his return we wait with the certain hope of those who serve a God who has come among us, who has lived with us, who has died for us, and who has risen before us.
And so this season of hopeful waiting comes to us in two keys, a twin motif, like a song of hope with one or two chords shifted into a minor key. In fact, just this week I was reading an article about the Christmas music of a singer I appreciate. The author noted that in this particular musician’s arrangement of Silent Night, “He keeps the lullaby feel of the hymn that people know well and transforms a couple major chords into minor ones, giving the song a more haunting vibe.” That’s kind of the way Advent works. Hope is there, and we know that feasting and celebration are right around the corner, but even as we hope, those minor chords of fasting and mourning the brokenness around and within us give this season a kind of haunting feeling. And that’s okay. We often need to fast before we feast. We need to confess before we rejoice.
We do this each week in the liturgy. First we confess our sins, then we are invited to the table of the King. First we repent, then we take our spot at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Stepping back for a slightly broader view, the whole of the divine liturgy prepares us for that celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Not only do we confess our sins, but we hear God’s law (or Jesus’s summary of it), and are reminded that we have not lived up to God’s holy standards. We pray prayers that remind us that the world is broken and in need of repair, and indeed that we are broken and in need of mercy. We hear God’s word taught to us in the sermon, God’s word which is like a sword “piercing to the division of joint and marrow,” and are reminded that we have work to do. This all comes before the great celebration at the King’s table. And it prepares us for it.
Advent prepares us for Christmas in much the same way. Rather than simply being four weeks of preemptive celebration Advent is that haunting time when we allow ourselves to both remember and to long, to hope and to mourn. In Advent we read Isaiah and are reminded that we are a people of promise, who yet await fulfillment.
And so what do we do as we wait? How do we keep a Holy Advent?
One thing to remember is that Advent is the beginning of the Church calendar year. The Church year begins with anticipation and waiting. It bids us to patience and sober mindedness. And so, why not make some new year’s resolutions? Let Advent be a time of taking stock, evaluating things like your prayer life, and your habits of Scripture reading.
As Anglicans we are fortunate to have some of the most well beloved prayers and Scripture readings for Advent in all of Christendom in our Book of Common Prayer. Advent is a wonderful time to commit to daily prayer, whether that is Morning and/or Evening Prayer, or the prayers for families found in the Book of Common Prayer, or maybe just reciting the collect for the previous Sunday followed by your own private prayers each day.
Likewise, Advent is a wonderful time to commit yourself to reading Scripture more regularly. The readings for Morning and Evening Prayer are certainly not a bad way to go, but if that seems daunting just pick a Gospel, or Genesis, or any other book of the Bible and start at the beginning, or commit to reading and meditating on a Psalm a day (you might want to schedule a few for Psalm 119 though!). Or just choose one of the many Bible reading programs that are out there. There are even apps for your phone or tablet that will give you the reading each day and help you keep track of your progress. The point is, this is a good time to recommit. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned when it comes to developing godly habits is: never stop starting again.
I know that these seem like simple advice, but I also know that I’m preaching to myself with this ‘simple’ advice.’ By this time of year, and with the busyness of this season, I know that things can get really out of whack for me. Finally, in addition to taking stock of your own life, and spiritual practices, I’ve been trying to stress that Advent is about solidarity with a world that is broken, a humanity that is fallen, a culture that is divided. Often as Christians we can slip into a kind of entrenched battle mode visa-vis the world around us. But Advent invites us to remember that just as Christ has come in the Incarnation, and just as he will come at the Consummation, Christ comes to the world even now, and he does so through you and through me.
We are to be Christ’s healing hands to a hurting and broken world. We are to be Christ’s feet that speed on swiftly to stand in solidarity with victims of oppression, cruelty, and injustice. We are to be Christ’s mouth speaking words of peace and reconciliation where there is discord, and inviting the sinner in to experience forgiveness and the love of God. As an anonymous quote I came across recently put it, “Do you want to keep Christ in Christmas [Advent]? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and the unwanted child, care for the ill, and love your enemies.”
So as we long for the return of our great King, we ought to remember that we are called to be his emissaries in the mean time. It is our calling to be working on his behalf, working out what he has begun in his first advent and what he will fully complete in his second advent. So let us keep a holy advent.