I realized this week that Advent is my favorite season of the church year – except when I think too much about it.
I love the structure and the rhythm of the Advent season – the way its Sundays have themes that build on each other, first providing fragile Hope, then an invitation to receive Peace, followed by the emergence of Joy and then the reassuring reminder of God’s Love. I delight in the Advent Wreath and the candles, and the practice of having a child come up and light the new candle each week. I love the songs we get to sing during Advent – Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Maranatha and others.
I love that the sombre, sober atmosphere of Advent is such a strong counterpoint to the hype and hoopla of the Christmas shopping-decorating-eating-drinking-shopping season. (Yes, I know I said ‘shopping’ twice.)
It’s very tempting to make Advent simply a pre-Christmas season, but at my church we really downplay the pre-Christmas aspect of the season. We don’t put up our tree until after the service on the Sunday of Love, and we don’t sing full-fledged Christmas songs until December 24. We turn the lights low for all four Sundays of Advent, and start each service with a clergy-led meditation that brings the theme of that week to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
In the days leading up to each service, we on the music team hunt through our repertoire for occurrences of that week’s theme, finding hope, peace, joy and love in all sorts of lyrics we’ve sung many times, often without really picking up on the connection in the past – and as a result it’s as though we sing these songs again, for the first time, on these Advent Sundays. We hope our congregations have a similar experience as they connect with these hidden-in-plain-sight Easter eggs.
Advent, like Lent and Holy Week (which is technically part of Lent, but functions for me like a season all its own), is a journey. But as I’ve mentioned before, Lent feels a little too long, and Holy Week too short. Advent is like the baby bear’s bed – just right. Long and dynamic enough that you don’t sneeze and miss it, but short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
But mostly, what I love about Advent is that it’s a season of anticipation and expectation. We’re looking forward to Christmas – our celebration and commemoration of the first coming of Christ, and also to His second coming. I often find that the anticipation of being given something wonderful is just as pleasurable as receiving it is – and often, far better than the experience of having it.
So in my opinion, a season devoted to anticipation is a very good idea. And therefore, for all those reasons, I love Advent.
And yet it also kind of freaks me out. The fire-and-brimstone sermons from John the Baptist that we get on the third Sunday of Advent, are downright scary:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:7-9
Right alongside hope, peace, joy and love, the pressure-filled question, ‘If Jesus came today, do you know where you’d spend eternity?’ seems to be woven into the fabric of Advent – and that seems to invite a ‘turn or burn‘ response to the Gospel.
Even more troubling for me is the saved-by-works vibe that also seems to be implied in that reading. John is talking to believers (of a sort) in this passage. And he seems to suggest that it’s their good works that will save them, not their status as a members of the family of God. (He said this prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, of course, but the fact that we continue to emphasize these readings each year during Advent seems to suggest that they’re still relevant to us at some level today – even on this side of the Cross.)
Are we to conclude that Advent wants us to anticipate the second coming of Christ with fear, doubt and dread? Does it provoke a theology that says if we’ve been less than 100% vigilant about doing all the do’s and don’ting all the don’ts, we’ll be judged to be inadequate and excluded from heaven?
And if so, are we urged to choose Christ to avoid punishment, rather than because He loves us and knows that only when we return that love will we become the best versions of ourselves – both for His sake and for our own?
It’s tough to reconcile that with what I see as the underlying message of Christianity: that Christ’s first coming happened specifically to deal with the reality that we are incapable of being 100% vigilant, and therefore we all are inadequate and without His intervention, ineligible for heaven.
If we take John 3:16 seriously, shouldn’t Advent be a joyful season for Christians? Shouldn’t we be looking forward to Christ’s second coming with excitement?
Well, maybe not with excitement, but definitely without fear, according to Daniel Kirk, host of the Homebrewed Christianity Lectiocast podcast.
“If the God with whom you are meeting with in your quiet time is not terrifying, but kind and gentle and loving and guiding, the God who’s waiting at The End shouldn’t be terrifying either,” he said in last week’s Lectiocast. “The End is a surprise because you don’t know when it’s coming, but the idea that God is going to surprise you by becoming this mean ogre in contrast to the God who’s been bearing with and lovingly faithful all this time – that needs to be done away.”
Amen to that. Thanks, JRDK.
Perhaps one of the reasons we focus the John the Baptist passages and their turn-or-burn themes each year during Advent is not to warn us about what we need to do in order to be saved by Christ, but to remind us of what, through the love we hear about in John 3:16, Christ has already saved us from – and for. It’s trite, but it’s true: we don’t work for our salvation, we work from it.
For believers, anyway. But what about our non-Christian neighbors?
Hmm. I’ll have to think a bit more about that and get back to you.
For now, peace (and hope, love and joy) be with you.