Some of my favorite memories of Christmas time relate to the "advent calendar" that we would hang on our door every year. For many years, it was a tree made out of cloth with 24 paper ornaments that my siblings and I would take turns hanging on the tree. As the tree filled up with ornaments, the closer we got to Christmas and the more excited we became. The last ornament was always the most important one as we stuck it on the top of the tree and realized that we had less than 24 hours until Christmas. It was a moment of joy that I looked forward to every year. I had no idea that that piece of cloth was actually named after a major event on the Christian calendar: the season of Advent.
If you are anything like me, you may have no idea what Advent is. I learned about as recently as last year because I was never told about it growing up. I don't blame anyone for not telling me about it: it is simply a tradition that has been lost in the ever-growing commercialization of Christmas. We buy gifts and attend parties in expectation of the celebration of December 25th. We search for the best deals and plan what we will eat around the dinner table on that night. Most of all, we wait with joy for what we will find under the tree on that beautiful morning. As the month moves along, we so much anticipate the coming of Christmas that we neglect to anticipate the coming of Christ.
That is what Advent is all about.
In Advent, we as Christians place ourselves in the shoes of those who patiently waited for the coming of the Jewish Messiah. They hoped for a Savior who would redeem them from the oppression of Rome. They anticipated deliverance into a new society where God reigned above all. Freedom and justice would come with the arrival of the Messiah. Peace and glory would be the everlasting reality of a world ruled by Yahweh. There would be an eternal shalom for the whole earth: for people, animals, and even the land itself.
They waited for this hope in a land of darkness. They saw terrors everyday and some even lived without food in their bellies. Many never got to see the promise of salvation come to fruition as they passed away from either sickness, age, or as victims of war. Death was the reality that none could escape and freedom felt as far away as the Garden of Eden. Yet they held onto hope in the midst of this chaos. They did not let slavery steal their trust in the God who said that he would deliver them. They waited for God and cried out to him for salvation.
And God heard.
In the birth of Jesus, we see hope in the life that is born. In Jesus, all of our expectations become a present day reality. The baby in the manger shows us that not only does God hear us, but that he is willing to join us in the darkness in order to lead us out. It is a wonderful reminder that God has not forgotten about us nor will he ever leave us.
But as we know all too well, this world does not appear to be the beautiful place that we all hope for. It is messy: filled with malice, greed, oppression, destruction, slavery, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, terrorism, cruelty, and death. When we turn on the news and see numerous counts of murder and war, it can seem like the hope of Jesus' birth is as far away as the Garden of Eden. Where is the Messiah who was supposed to bring us all shalom? Why does the lion still attack and eat the lamb? Where are the endless fields of green grass and flowing water that Isaiah describes so well?
The first step of Advent is remembering that things are not all as they should be at this present time. We acknowledge the sad truth of this world: sin still rampages against all of humanity. We all face struggles everyday, some more so than others, but none of us can escape the fact that this life is not the one we are hoping for. When we celebrate Advent, we practice not turning a blind eye to this pain, and we earnestly seek to understand it.
The second step is anticipation. Like those who anticipated the coming of the Messiah, we anticipate his coming too. We long for the day when the trumpet will resound and the dead in Christ will rise to greet our Savior and welcome him back to earth. We hope for the day when our dry bones will have flesh on them again. We pray for the day when death no longer separates us from those we love. We are filled with joyful expectation at the coming of our Lord and Savior for we believe that he will restore all that we have destroyed and redeem all that we have cast off. We should not fear his return, but eagerly await the joy of seeing his face.
Most importantly, when we celebrate Advent, we remember that we belong to the reign of Christ. We live our lives as hopeful, expectant people, in an age of despair and darkness. It is in us, the Church, that the future reality of eternal shalom resides in this temporal existence. Our actions are dictated not by what we see around us, but by what we hope will be in the coming age. We will be peacemakers in a world of violence; we will be meek in a world of pride; we will be selfless in a world of greed. We will go about our lives, looking at that cloth tree and growing excited over the fact that we are one day closer to the return of the King. Whatever we do, we do it in expectation of him. However we live, we live in a way that he has commanded us. We shall hope against hope that all things, all things, will be restored at the coming of his everlasting glory.
Advent reminds us that Christ is coming. Hallelujah! He is coming!
Are you ready?