Advent is a time of expectant waiting. Observed mostly in the liturgical churches, it is our way preparing for Christmas. But it’s a season with more than one purpose. It reminds us that in ancient times, God’s people spent centuries anticipating, watching…longing for the Messiah to come. But it’s also the season to remember that we still need a messiah, and that we are called to prepare for his coming again. As the scriptures have shown us for the past few weeks, we still need to be waiting and watching. And while it is no longer considered a penitential season, Advent still calls us to reflection on the mystery of incarnation: how his coming changed everything, and will change everything again, when he returns. What does it mean to need a Messiah?
Advent is also about time; not our notions of chronology, but rather God’s Kairos, a time beyond time, with an ultimate and eternal purpose. To most people, time is simply a commodity, a gift to use as moments fall, one after another, along a continuum. But Advent is a season in which chronology is transgressed: we anticipate Christ’s birth - even though it happened in the far past - just as we equally anticipate his return, sometime in the future. And in the meantime, we can only live by faith in the present, hoping on the very same eternal Messiah whom we await in both the future and the past.
So Advent invites us to see time differently, to view it as a sacred and holy gift. And Advent reminds us that when we come to the communion table, it isn’t just the baby who was born we seek to join, or the king who will return, but the Christ of the present moment. It’s a shame, then, when we are so easily swayed by a culture that doesn’t understand the possibilities or the gravity of Advent.
I have a good friend in Eastville who received an Advent calendar in the mail last week…some sort of promotional gift. When he began to tell me about it, my ears perked up, because if anyone appreciates a good Advent calendar, it’s an Episcopalian. Most Episcopalians fondly recall the Advent calendars of years gone by…peeling away each calendar day in Advent to reveal a piece of candy, or some other hidden prize. But most protestant denominations barely acknowledge Advent, let alone keep a calendar. So, my friend, who’s a Baptist, doesn’t really keep Advent as a rule, but he’s interested in religious custom, so he was glad to have his first Advent calendar.
My friend got right into it and peeled away the first day, and the second, and then all the days. And behind each calendar date was a recipe for the Advent Cocktail of the day. It wasn’t what he expected. And he’s a Baptist.
We Episcopalians are pretty serious about keeping Advent. And by reputation, I suppose, we’re pretty serious about cocktails, too. But the idea of an Advent Cocktail of the Day Calendar…I hope whoever thought that one up isn’t an Episcopalian. And if it was a Catholic…well that person is surely bound for purgatory. So apart from the daily Advent Cocktail, how do we go about keeping Advent in a way that’s meaningful?
The other day, I ventured across the bridge and straight into the Lion’s Den: Hilltop on a Friday during the Christmas shopping season. The traffic was crazy busy, even for a Friday afternoon. Drivers were talking on their phones, weaving in and out of lanes, blowing their horns, and generally making a racket. Inside the stores, fake snow coated the fake fir trees and loudspeakers blared out hipster versions of Christmas Carols while shoppers crowded the aisles in search of the perfect gifts. It was so crowded at the TJ Maxx that I had to wait in line just to browse the jelly and spice aisle. And the Costco was worse. Everywhere I went, it was crowded and noisy and busy: Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. And it was barely Advent.
It was a blessing to come back to the quiet of the shore. And it suggested to me something important about this season: Advent has traditionally been a season similar to Lent, a season of pondering the mystery of God and time…what God has done; what God is doing; what God holds for the future.
And in this sense, it should be a season of silence and listening.
But because Western culture is addicted to the noise and consumerism of the holiday season - beginning at Halloween, and only ending when the tree is thrown to the curb - we tend to forget how important it is to simply sit and listen…because it’s Advent, and we have the mystery of the incarnation ahead of us; and because this is the time and opportunity to meditate on the mystery.
But we have to listen…or we won’t hear.
I think of the story of Elijah on the mountain, escaping from the pandemonium of life, hoping to hear the voice of God. He can’t hear God in the wind storm, or in the earthquake, or the wildfire. But listening closely, he heard God’s voice in the whisper of a small breeze. Likewise, I don’t think we’ll perceive the mysteries of the divine in a noisy store, shopping as if the season depended upon it. Advent is a time better suited to bundling up for a walk along the bay, listening for God in the lapping of the waves or the cry of a bird.
And one other thing…Advent needs to be a priority in the lives of believers. It’s important to find some quiet, to pray and meditate – to seek true meaning. The other things of the season will fall in place.
It’s important because it’s too easy to lose track of Advent, to brush over this most wonderful gift of in-between, to glance past this wrinkle in time. Christmas looms just ahead, and we have parties to attend, and gifts to buy, and houses to decorate, and cards to mail, and lists and shopping and on and on. And all those things are important, but don’t lose track of Advent, for the season invites us into the wrinkle in salvations’ time.
We hear the words of the prophets from so long ago, their hearts longing for the day that he would come, living by faith that it would be…even if they never would see it. We hear the prophesies of the future that will likely happen long after we have gone. By faith we anticipate it. And we enter into the present eternity of Jesus, as - by faith - we meet him in the sacrament of communion.
The season of Advent is beginning; a season of anticipation and hope. We look to the past, and to the future, as we meet with the Son of God, who is with us now and always.
I wish you all a holy and blessed Advent season.