Interference. Inconvenience. And if your family who will gather this year will be talking about the recent state of political affairs… Well, intolerance too.
For others this is a season that used to mean so much because of the people that made it so special, but maybe this year you will be gathering around an empty chair that shouldn’t be empty.
And yet Christmas is coming. How do we get through situations like this? How do we move past the pain, the fear, the busyness of life, and somehow be people of hope?
There is a tradition within the Christian faith that calls us all to slow down and think from a larger picture. This tradition is slowly making a comeback and in my opinion is long overdue. We call it Advent.
Advent is a time for a humility check. It’s been a crazy year. We’ve had our culture’s heroes brought back down to earth amid all of the scandals. We’ve had a lot of fear to behold as the world seems to continue spinning into darker and darker days… (Here’s looking at you North Korea.)
We’ve lost people this year.
We’ve broken things this year.
We’ve experienced shame and moments of depression.
We’ve collectively mourned the deaths of innocent lives, of police officers, of soldiers.
We have made mistakes.
We have hurt people, and we have been hurt.
Some of us have had the best year of our lives, and it is so easy to forget how we got to where we are.
As Father Time continues to flip the pages of our calendars this moment is needed to pause and be able to look inside ourselves and understand that none of us have made it to our destination yet. We are all, like Paul, straining towards what’s ahead.
Our world is dark and chaotic. Among all of our happy moments and victories this year, we have also, all of us, experienced heartache and pain. Some of us may be facing Christmas this year with a family one less than last year. Perhaps the year was financially straining. Divorce. Rebellion. Death. Sin. Breakups. Fear. Our world is under a dark shadow of terrorism. Our nation is divided like never before over political partisanship. In the midst of all our darkness we find ourselves singing the chorus of the martyrs, “How long, Oh Lord? Come Lord Jesus!”
So this year, just as a star guided the wise men from the East to the baby King, I want to step back and let an ancient tradition be our guide through this season. For we are all seeking the Presence of our God this Christmas.
“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine… For you will break the yoke of their slavery and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders. You will break the oppressor’s rod… For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” –Isaiah 9:2-6
So what is Advent?
Advent is a strange word to us. It sounds incomplete, like someone was trying to say “adventure” or “Adventist” but didn’t finish the word out. What’s up with the strange word and the strange candle lighting thing anyway?
In the midst of “Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays!” and the fifth time you heard jingle bells being sung today, this Christmas season can begin to feel like a blur. You force yourself to smile and fake a laugh because you’re supposed to be happy. It is after of course, “the Happ-Happiest season of all!”
Children sing about joy and Hallmark movies make life seem so perfect, and yet our lives feel anything but. Advent allows us to embrace the angst. It allows us to reflect in a way that might feel somber. It allows us to be transparent about what we really feel. Advent beckons us to come before God with honesty and tell him that 2017 left some scars. Sure, He already knows, but instead of the pressure of mimicking jolly old Santa, Advent asks us questions that permeate more than just sentimental feelings. It asks us what life really is. It acknowledges the darkness that still plagues us, but it points us to a source of light.
We lament through this darkness so we might better prepare our minds and hearts for the coming of Jesus. Advent, which is the Latin word for “Coming”, is perhaps one of the oldest Christian traditions. Some suggest it was founded even by the Apostles, that once a year Christians would set aside a prolonged period of time and remember the first coming of Christ, the darkness that surrounded the world so tightly until light came. Advent doesn’t stop there though, if it did there would really be no difference between generic Christmas celebrations and this life giving exercise. There are three meanings of ‘coming’ that Christians describe in Advent. The first, and most thought of, happened about 2000 years ago when Jesus came into the world as a baby to live as a man and die for us. We remember the whole story: the angst of His coming, the way in which He came, and the mark He left on the world. The second can happen now as Jesus comes into our lives to live and reign through His Spirit, this is His work in and through His church. The third will happen in the future when Jesus comes back to the world as King and Judge, when everything that is wrong will be made right and all sorrow will be wiped away by His tender hands.
Doesn’t that just breathe hope?
We are living in an opportunistic, individualistic, consumer driven culture. The calendar has merged into sales peaks. Black Friday has completely engulfed Thanksgiving. Cyber Monday has become everyone’s favorite day of the year, and now Small Business Saturday has made its mark. Where is Jesus? Where is reflection? Where is mercy, compassion, justice for the oppressed? If we don’t take a more aggressive and even offensive stance, we will always end up getting swallowed up by the deluge of what the culture is purporting: more, more, more.
If one were to go onto any financial website, all one would read right now are the predictions for the spending of this year’s holiday season and to make sure you get your tax break by giving to charity. We’re living in a culture that’s all about consumerism, and it ends up steamrolling the end of the year. Even churches jump in on it, asking for extra end-of-year donations.
With a blink of an eye all of a sudden, Thanksgiving and Christmas become a blur of craziness. Then we’re left, barely standing, holding a candle at church on Christmas Eve thinking, “Oh yeah, it really was all about the night when Christ was born.”
While the world celebrates Santa Claus, Eggnog, great sales, and high energy festivities, WE reflect on the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.
You might be thinking, “We have Charlie Brown for that thank you very much!” And of course by reading the true story of Christmas found in Luke 2 we can in fact focus where we ought to be. The Christmas season is supposed to be more than just a story though. It is supposed to be a beckon into a new way of life. In our world, December 25th has become less and less about hope, peace, joy, and love and has become more and more about presents, lights, and the color of Starbucks’ cups.
When we recover Advent, we are reminded that this season is about a promise that God is going to do what God has promised He is going to do… and He’s going to do that for every single one of us.
Though Advent is the traditional start of the Church liturgical calendar, this season was eventually placed at the end of the year in our culture’s calendar so that we could invite everyone to remember all the moments that Christ “came” throughout the past year.
And He did come to you.
He came in the same ways He always has. In those moments when we least expected Him, in the most unforeseen ways, and when, whether we realized it or not, we needed Him most.
This time of the year is a 4 week long moment to remember His faithfulness.
In the hubbub of the rush and the noise this season brings, there is something refreshing, as well as a deep type of connection with our past when we slow down, when we pause in our efforts, and reflect on all the ways Christ has offered Himself, and His presence throughout our year to us and to those around us.
Advent isn’t a celebration, though it can quickly become one. Advent is truly a time of mourning, of angst, as we prepare for the Christmas feast and the honor we bestow upon our King and Redeemer. It is a season where we dig deep into our roots as Christ’s Body on earth and we continue in a practice of humility, repentance, and worship. This tradition is as ancient as the words of our favorite carols. This tradition is as sacred as our opening of presents on Christmas morning. However, this tradition may just be the most important thing you observe this year.