Advent (disambiguation)

Advent is NOT (only, exclusively, with out exception) about Christmas.

During the Advent season this year I heard the usual grumblings from the congregation about a general lack of Christmas celebration prior to December 24th.  Let me clarify what I understand this season to emphasize, and so what its purpose is.

 

First, lets understand that we are not making up this practice.  It is documented as far back as the 6th century.  That also serves as a reminder that it was not as important to the early church as Easter, or even Ascension Day (4th Century).  This is an old practice of the church, which like many other practices and traditions intends to teach.

 

In what was once called the “Provisional Liturgy” the Gospel lessons (as they are now) were instructional as to the meaning and movement of the season.  They were: First Sunday in Advent, Matthew 21:8-11; Second Sunday in Advent, Luke 21:25-33; Third Sunday in Advent, Matthew 11:2-1; and the Fourth Sunday in Advent, John 1:19-34. [the Provisional Liturgy also included St. Stephen’s Day, St. John’s Day, and Holy Innocents’ after Christmas but the exclusion of them in the modern lectionary is a whole different matter.]    What we have in the Provisional Liturgy is a movement from ‘Palm Sunday,’ to the destruction of Jerusalem, to John the Baptist testifies to Jesus (in prison), and finally on the fourth Sunday in Advent John testifies to Jesus at the Jordan: “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”[1]

 

I used this Provisional Liturgy from the Mercersburg ‘Fathers’ because it’s pericopes deliver a distillation of what (I believe) the Common Lectionary seeks: to emphasize the Incarnation. 

For us, there is tension.  The dialectic consists of the coming of an Isaiah’s infant Messiah (11:1-10), and the coming of a Cosmic Christ who will transform the entirety of creation (Isaiah 35:1-10).   Advent is therefore not only about the coming of Christ as an infant, but is also about the second coming.  So all these prophetic voices and all these apocalyptic scenes serve to ‘qualify’ or ‘corroborate’ the nativity story and impress upon us its significance. 

Joan Chittister describes Advent as “the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious.” Beyond the obvious is God entering the world as flesh, blood and bone. The response is jubilation. Thus, the pivot of history is proclaimed: “I am bringing you good news of great joy.”

 

The movement the church has tried to teach us for a millennia is this:  God promises, we wait; God’s promises remain, we wait; God delivers, but not the way the world delivers do I deliver unto you, we receive even as we wait; God’s promises remain, we wait.  There are but two points to be made in all the scripture and tradition, the rest is emphasis: first, the identity of Jesus. And, second, he is the embodiment of the entirety of Israel’s history.[2]  We remember the long history of God’s people longing for a messiah.

 

What I am suggesting is that at its best Advent teaches us about the source of our faith and assists in dispelling some of the cultural sentimentality that has overcome the very simple (but not simplistic) point of all our preparations.  One author summarizes this way:

 

So, as the church celebrates God’s inbreaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which “all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption,” it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” 

 

Now, more than ever perhaps, the instructional function of Advent is essential.  So this simple country pastor grits his teeth, digs in his heels, and tries his best to hold onto Advent music and apocalyptic scenes. 

 

Do I do this just to be difficult?  Sure!  I do this as a counter measure to the many other stories about Christmas.  Don’t the good folk in my congregation get enough cheap materialism and shallow fairytales elsewhere?  I stick to this story, the church’s story, because it solves the issue of separating a secular Christmas from a spiritual Christmas.

 

Our Advent season, even Christ-mass and Christmas tide, cannot compete with the onslaught of marketing and sentimentalities tied to the secular holiday.  We could spend an enormous amount of energy trying to combat what some of us feel is a certain abuse of the holiday.  The alternative is to spend some concerted time focused on some Advent disciplines of preparation.  There is lots of cool stuff for kids: advent wreaths, advent calendars, candles, etc.  Adults could use some additional prayer time and devotions that work at creating, preparing space, in our hearts for the coming presence of God.  And, the whole idea of gift giving is perfect…so long as it is directed in a way that shows a certain preferential option for the poor and marginalized.

 

Advent is about the hard work of become aware of just who it is we are preparing for.  It is also about the joy that He has come.  It is about the anticipation that He will come again and (as N. T. Wright says) set the whole world to rights.

 

 

 

[1] John 1:34 (RSV)

[2] Raymond E. Brown, “Coming Christ in Advent” Liturgical Press, p. 10


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