Last year around this time, a couple of insights came across my radar that shifted my thinking around Advent and helped add new layers of meaning to this time of the year. The ideas aren’t mine and they aren’t new - in fact, they are very, very old - so I am definitely running the risk of telling you something you already know. But it’s worth saying on the off-chance it helps you along the journey into this wonderful season as well.
Thanks in part to a lovely book, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, by Gayle Boss, I was reminded that this time of year was purposefully chosen by the early church fathers as the seedbed to tell the Advent story. In fact, in their (and our) Northern hemisphere, the created world is actually telling us the story if we will pay attention.
The summer harvest is collected and stored, and we of course have celebrated with a feast of thanksgiving. But the feast is over, and we are now staring down the shortest days and longest nights of the year. The light - the sustainer of our sustenance - is waning. And as if that doesn’t scare us, the bitter cold is also setting in. For the majority of human history, this time of year has brought very real and scary questions to mind: Will last year’s harvest sustain us through the winter? Do we have enough fuel to keep us warm and safe? It’s only been less than a hundred years (and in certain parts of the world) that we’ve had the ability to ignore these questions by turning on more artificial light/heat and running to the grocery store for our every need. While I’m very thankful that I have access to those things, I also believe that we still feel this time of year on some level. And that is a good thing. For those of you who feel something a little “off” behind the tinsel and music and celebrations, not only are you not abnormal - your experience may actually be the most natural and sane reaction to the season. In fact, that feeling may be the very entry point into the Advent season.
Why is this important? Because of two key, closely-related things. First, the cold, the darkness, the fear, and the uncertainty remind us unequivocally that we rely on God for everything. It may take more imagination for us to see that in modern times and in our part of the world, but that makes it all the more important to not lose sight of it. Our light, our heat, our homes, our food, our land, ourselves - they are all, in the end, created and sustained only by the Loving Hand of our Creator. And if this first belief defines our reality, the second defines God’s. Because it is precisely in the longest, darkest, coldest night that the church tells of an adventus - the coming of our Savior into this world. Like a flame lit in a dark room or a fire lit on a cold night, our Savior’s name gets whispered into the world into this great darkness. What this time points out to us figuratively is our belief that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our only Savior, comes to us in the darkest hour of our need.
The second part of Advent that struck me in my readings last year was that Advent is not just a time where we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ child. It is also a time that we reflect on the promised adventus: the coming of our Savior in the future. Why these two things together? Well, any celebration we have of the Christ child born into our midst, no matter how meaningful (and maybe because it is meaningful), is inevitably going to be tinged with longing. We long for our Savior, to be near and to be like Him. His presence may be revealed to us in a moment of grace, but we are not with Him currently like He promised we will be someday. Remembering that God once sent Him into our midst is one part of the story, but the other part helps to name this longing. After all, we live now in the great “in-between,” remembering that He once came to us and reminding ourselves of the promise that He will return. Once again, the winter season provides us with the perfect backdrop as we wait for God’s warmth and provision to return in the coming spring. Into our darkness and fear, God says, “Remember how I came to be with you,” and to our longing, God says, “Remember my promise that I will come to you again.”
I hope that these insights provide you encouragement as they did me in celebrating this coming Advent season. To them, I’ll add a couple of practical takeaways from the church fathers that I didn’t mention above.
The first is that in the traditional church calendar, Advent is the beginning of the year. That’s another way of saying: this time - with its wonderful remembrance and promise - is the opening chapter of our story. It is our starting place.
The second is that this time of year for the majority of our church’s history was a time of penitence, prayer and giving to the poor (similar to Lent). That seems like a great counterbalance to the rampant consumerism that has come to define this time of year culturally in our part of the world. Seeing this time of year as a time to prepare through these classic means of devotion may provide a welcome antidote if you find this time unwantedly filled with busyness and distraction.
May this time of year speak into your darkness and your longing, and may we all be more rooted in Christ, our hope and our redeemer. He is coming! Praise be to Him!