Advent is a strange season in the church year. We just celebrated Christ the King Sunday. From the perspective of Christ the King Sunday, we almost don't want to talk about Advent because that implies that the church year is about to start over. On Christ the King, we look forward to Jesus' second coming, that day which will end all cycles. But alas, the second coming has NOT happened. We are still starting years over, whether on the first Sunday of Advent or New Year's Day or Rosh Hoshanna or Chinese New Year, the years keep on coming and we keep on starting them over. By the church calendar, though, we have started over.
Still, it almost seems like nothing's changed. On Christ the King Sunday, we were looking forward to the coming of Christ, and now that it's Advent, we're, well, looking forward to the coming of Christ. The readings in Advent, different from Christ the King Sunday, almost expect us to pretend that Jesus has not yet been born, that the world groans in suffering still. It's as though we're meant to believe we don't already know the joy of God's salvation. We're supposed to pretend that we aren't sustained by God's bountiful Spirit. We're supposed to deny our certain hope and instead pretend that we desperately need God's salvation for the first time.
Do we? It often feels like the world needs saving from desperate circumstances of injustice, poverty, physical corruption of the environment and spiritual corruption of world governments, war and rumors of war. Still, for most in our congregation, we live the comfortable life of privilege.
To the extent that Advent is a time of preparation, it is also a time to look honestly at ourselves. We look at our own sin and we look at the sin committed by the society we're a part of--the societies we're a part of. What injustices do we participate in? What idols do we worship? We can pray with the Psalmist, as though it is not already accomplished: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions." We can ask ourselves if the prophets of justice--Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah--might be talking about US even today. Does God punish God's people by causing them harm? or by withholding protection so that they come to harm? Have we already received double the penalty for our transgressions? Looking at the Advent candles, are we holding onto faith so that our hope is secure? Are we working for truth and justice and peace? or are we lightly covering over our difference to avoid conflict? Are we oriented toward joy in life? and do we turn toward God when we feel overwhelmed or depressed? Are we living a life that increases love in our life and community and world?
From this perspective--from this "B.C." perspective without Christ in the world, it's easy to think of God as a Spirit as big as the cosmos (I'm thinking of e. e. cummings' "when God decided to invent / everything he took one / breath bigger than a circustent / and everything began"). It's also easy to imagine an indifferent God, a God who might deign to intervene in our lives and in our history, but then again might also be justified in just letting us go and leaving us to our own devices. These perspectives might be good for the preparatory function of Advent. It's good not to take things for granted, to think that maybe we're part of the problem, that we don't deserve all the blessing we enjoy, that our tribes are not the best, that we're fallen. In Advent we ponder and groan with all creation and cry "How Long?" We turn toward God and imagine God's reign made manifest so all can see it. We want to see it. Warning: this might mean we change. We might change our lives and start working for God's reign made manifest in this time of preparation, in this time of anticipation.
Of course, we are living on the "A.D." side of that first Christmas. We know we're still fallen, but we know that God did not stay big and remote but became like us. God experienced oppression and injustice firsthand. God became like us in every way, except without sin. At Christmas we exchange that "ponder" for wonder. We wonder at the groanings as though they are labor pains anticipating joy instead of abject suffering. We who know what's coming look forward to the amazing wonder of that cosmically large God packed into a tiny baby. We wonder if God who made heaven and earth experienced wonder at seeing the world for the first time from the perspective of a baby learning what his mother's face looks like. We wonder at how this defenseless infant will bring us the comfort of God's saving presence.
We know how Advent ends, and so we hope. Does it count as the hope of faith if we already know? Can we turn that hope into the always-future hope of Christ's return? We know how Advent ends, and so we know peace. Is that the peace of God's assurance or are we complacent? We know how Advent ends, and so we feel joy. Has God restored to us the joy of God's salvation? Are we taking it for granted? We know how Advent ends, and so we know God's love for us. Do we take that love into the world to love others as Christ has loved us? Do we treat everyone we meet as though they are an infant bringing God's love to us?
Linger in Advent with questions (these questions or your own), and don't leap to Christmas yet. Treat this Advent as a time of preparation to shift our perspective from anticipating our secular Christmas celebrations and receiving gifts to anticipating the wonder of the gifts of God's love in that infant, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.