Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Advent: The Season of Waiting

“Be sure not to miss the grand arrival” enthused the television announcer, as he dashed around the automobile showroom, ricocheting off every vehicle in the place.  “If you wait, you’ll lose your last chance to own a great car at a great price.”

It sounded absolutely cosmic: the car you can’t do without, at a price you’ll never see again, but only if you drop everything and come running.

It also sounded like one of the reasons our society has such a hard time cultivating any kind of serious spirituality.  The attitude is so pervasive it’s become a cliché: the good life is out there for the taking, but only to those who seize the moment, drop their hesitations and act now.  “Give me a hundred dollars and I’ll hold the car.  Otherwise, I just know someone else is going to come along and grab it.”

Immersed in this way of relating to the world, is it any wonder that men and women approach church as one consumer option among many, expect flash and excitement in worship, approach the Bible with a Cliff Notes mentality, and look for their every prayer to be answered by the next morning?  Or, failing those results, they conclude that faith and religion are just so much hokum?

Contrast this consumerist take on life with the season into which we now enter.  No, not the “Holiday [Shopping] Season.”  Not Christmas, quite yet.  Advent.  “Advent” means, literally, “coming” or “arriving.”  If we slow down enough to pay attention to it, the season can teach us a great deal about the ways we grow in faith and understanding of God, and perhaps a bit about how we order the rest of our lives as well.

The first thing we learn is that God’s ideas about time and ours are quite different.  God promised a Savior to rescue the Israelites and all humanity from sin; a Deliverer, who would break the bonds of oppression; a Counselor, who would teach and model God’s ways to the rebellious and the confused; a Servant, who would suffer, die and rise again for the sins of the world; a Sovereign, who would rule with justice and mercy.

This promise was spelled out nearly five centuries before the birth of Christ.  Yes, that’s Five centuries.  Talk about slow delivery!  Yet the consistent witness of Scripture, and the unanimous report of those who live closest to God, is that some things cannot be rushed.

I know, I know...there are only X shopping days until Christmas.  We’ve got to go full tilt and nonstop if we’re going to get everything done.  Conceding for the moment that we’re all caught up in that, let’s look at the bigger picture.

There are at least three dimensions to Advent.  It recounts those centuries between the promise and the arrival of Christ.  It recalls the coming of faith in the risen Christ in the personal life of each believer.   And it anticipates the moment, yet-to-come, when history finds its ultimate fulfillment in the coming and establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

But there’s still that pesky self-imposed need we feel to rush about and strain our every resource to create the illusive “Perfect Christmas.”  Uncle Rudolph (not the reindeer) will expect a gift that is not a tie, and Aunt Mary (not the mother of our Lord) will have an eagle eye on our table decorations.  What can we do about the anxiety all that stirs up?

Well, we can decide that we’re going to opt out of that anxiety, and let our family and friends think and even say what they will.  It’s not a bad choice, especially if we know they’re going to find nits to pick whatever we do.  That may lift some of the pressure, but we’re still going to be rushed.

We can decide to make moments even in the rush and bother to watch and listen for the real arrival we’re preparing to celebrate.  Get an Advent Calendar, a real one, not the Santa-and-elves variety, but one that includes a verse of scripture on every door.  When you open the door, don’t just look at the pictures.  Read the verse and pause long enough to think about it.  It takes about two minutes a day.  At the moment when the shopping mall Muzak Carols are most irritating, stop dead in your tracks, forget how bad the arrangement is, and remember the words that go with the tune.  Sometime during the season, sit down with your Bible and read Matthew, chapters 1 & 2 and Luke 1 & 2.  It won’t take a half hour, but it will call you into the heart of the season.  Add to that John 1:1-18, and you’ll find the wonder and awe of Christ’s coming.

Add CDs or MP3s, and you can find your own moments to wait expectantly even in the middle of the rush.  A word about music: don’t stick to what you know - it becomes so familiar that we really don’t hear it after a while.  Our family likes to find a recording with selections we’ve never heard before: sometimes ancient or medieval, sometimes from another country.  We have to slow down and really listen, and when we do we almost always see an angle of the story we never noticed before.  While you’re at it, don’t go straight to the Christmas carols.  There is a wealth of Advent hymns and Carols that anticipate Christmas, but don’t have us kneeling in the stable on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  More waiting, more anticipation.  And at some point in the month check out what special services may be on offer at the churches in your area.

The point is to find time to wait, to savor the truth of the season. God’s time is not our time, and brief moments can be blessed if we open ourselves to them.  There’s another reason to do this, and it has to do with the fuller dimensions of our growth in faith.  

Advent, and the secular part of the December holidays are microcosms of the way persons of faith have to live in the world.  While Christmas shopping is not with us throughout the year, plenty of other pressing deadlines, errands and chores are.  These others clamor for our attention just as insistently as the holiday preparations, and they are just as effective in distracting us from the time we need to cultivate lives of faith.  “Maybe I can pray after this big project at work is finished.”  “I’d like to find a few moments to read the Bible, and in about a month, with the kids’ sports over, perhaps I can do it.”  “I wish I could learn how to meditate, and I understand it does wonders for you, so possibly when the school year is over I can give it a try.” “The summer is so short in New England, it seems a sin not to spend every available moment outdoors.  I’ll look into church come fall”

Advent is the start of the church year.  Why not make moments of time now, and apply the same principles throughout the rest of the year?  Start simply, find the opportunities, and see depths you never guessed in this old but life-giving story.

Howard MacMullen
© November, 2012

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