In the past two weeks several people have asked me about the season of Advent. Why do we wait to sing Christmas Carols? Why don’t we decorate the church for Christmas at the beginning of December?
The following is a reflection on the season of Advent that I wrote in 2004. This reflection also appeared as the cover article for the Saint Andrews Episcopal Church newsletter, The Crossroads, in December of 2007. I hope that you find this useful as we wait together for the Miracle of Christmas.
Advent can be a difficult season of the Church year to understand and to keep. The world around us is buzzing with excitement, catalogs arrive in the mail every day, carols blare from the speakers in the malls, and everyone is caught up in the excitement of Christmas. But in church on the first Sunday of Advent, the weekend after Thanksgiving when the stores will be open before the Churches on Sunday morning, we will not sing carols. In fact we will not sing carols in church until Christmas Eve and while the rest of the world is caught up in a frenzy of consumerism indulgence we will be told to wait, to pray to listen and to prepare.
Why should we wait? We know what is coming! We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God! O come, O come Emanuel? He has already come and we know that God Is With Us! So why should we wait to begin the celebration? Why should we listen? We already know how he story ends don’t we?
Well the people of Israel though that they knew how the story would end too. They were waiting for a Messiah King to deliver them from the hands of Rome, to restore the throne of David and return the kingdom to its former glory. Boy did they get a surprise! The Messiah who came was not the God that they had expected. The Messiah who came was not he God that they had planned for. The Messiah who came was not the God that they had imagined.
It is in this first coming of God among us that we find the reason and the model for Advent. The people of Israel did not get the God that they had imagined but they got the God that they needed. The people of Israel knew the shortcoming of idols. An idol, conceived by human imagination, fashioned from our own self understanding, and created by human hands cannot be God. God must be beyond our ability to imagine, fashion or create because God must speak to us from beyond our selves.
We turn to God or answers to ultimate questions. What is my purpose in life? Why am I here? Am I worthwhile? Can I be forgiven for my sins? Am I, despite all of the things that I am and am not, loveable, worth loving? Any answers to these questions that come from within us do nothing to answer the questions for us. That word of purpose, that word of meaning, of affirmation and of absolution must come from beyond ourselves, from outside of who and what we are. They must come from a God that is not us and not of us. If the people of Israel had gotten the God that they imagined they would not have gotten God. They would have gotten an idol of their own making.
Why do we wait in Advent? Why don’t we rush to celebrate the coming of the God who has come and continues to come? It is because we need to make room to be surprised by that coming. Who will God be, what will God be when God comes to me? If I do not wait to see who God will be then perhaps I am assuming that God will be who I expect, imagine, and in some ways create for myself. If we are unwilling to be surprised the God who comes to us can become an idol, carved in stone, unchanging and cold, unable to speak to us from outside of ourselves because we already know the words that are going to be spoken. The God we create for ourselves is no God at all.
Who will God be? Advent tells us to wait, to pray and to prepare, for we may be surprised by the advent of God among us. Who knows? To crush the arrogance of our assumptions and to turn the expectations of the world upside down, to be a voice that can speak a word of purpose, affirmation and absolution God may even come as a defenseless baby, born in poverty in a stable in a town lit only by the light of the star that calls us to seek him.