Advent Reflections

Tomorrow, Advent begins.

We all love Advent. The kids, especially.

I can get into the candles and their themes, their light shining in our darkness. And, most of all, I can appreciate the way that a period of focused preparation makes the Christmas celebration itself much more rich. It is only on rare occasion that I can jump into something cold and fully appreciate everything that’s going on.

But I often worry that Advent carries with it an under-realized eschatology.

To put it differently: I worry that we too often slip into the language of “preparing for the arrival of the Christ child” rather than either preparing ourselves to celebrate the arrival that already happened or preparing for the future advent for which we actually await.

Frankly, my kids find Advent confusing. They know we’re celebrating Jesus, but the idea that we’re waiting for his birth too often takes center stage and so they go around shouting “Jesus is born!” as if it had actually just happened, as though the Messiah we’d been waiting for had finally come.

This underscores my ambivalence. Yes, it’s good to prepare ourselves for important celebrations. But in all the talk of “waiting” we too often slip into language that indicates a posture of waiting for the birth of the Messiah–something for which we are not waiting at all, and to say that we are is a denial of the good news itself.

And here, I know, we are dancing up along a line that marks off one boundary that will ever keep me from being Roman Catholic: I don’t find the cycle of a recurring church year to be as fruitful a way of making sense of the Christian story as recognizing where we are in the linear unfolding that awaits its final consummation.

I frankly wish we spent less time thinking about preparing ourselves for the first coming and more time crying out for the realization of the second. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” is the prayer of the church that knows itself living between the first and second Advents, it is the prayer of the church that confesses the world to stand under the reign of Jesus but still need to see that reign consummated far as the curse is found.

Maybe this is why I find that “Joy the world” is one of two carols worth singing at Christmas: because it was written to be a hymn of Christ’s return, not of his birth.

So what am I saying?

Yes, please, celebrate Advent. Yes, please, prepare your heart and mind for Christmas. But also, watch your phraseology.

We do not await the coming Christ child, we await the Christ’s return.

We do not await the Messiah’s birth, though we might participate in the labor pains that will see Christ fully formed in us.

11 thoughts on “Advent Reflections”

  1. I have wondered about a way to combine the linearity of being between the then and the not-yet with the cyclical nature of the church year. A spiral, maybe?

  2. Thanks for these thoughts. I consistently find Advent the strangest season to celebrate/observe because of the muddied “phraseology” and meaning you identified.

    Do you find the Jewish observance of Passover to be helpful in guiding our holiday practices? Some of the language, in Deuteronomy particularly, suggests to me that their remembrance and participation in the event actually does something to make the original event their own.

    Again, I find your thoughts helpful as they help me keep from walking through the season in unquestioned ways.

  3. Being married to a person who studies liturgy for her PhD, I hear quite a bit about recurring church year cycles and so forth. I think that most people who care about such things would be quick to agree with you in saying that Advent should be at least as much about preparing for the Second Coming as it is about remembering the first.

  4. The lectionary provides balance in this regard. The Second Advent is clearly the emphasis in the Advent I readings, and there is a gradual shift in the Advent II and Advent III readings. By Advent IV, the focus is in on the first coming, though even then not exclusively. (Of course, the Sundays preceding Advent also have a focus on the second coming, so that provides further balance).

  5. I find this post intriguing as I was thinking about this myself today, but came to about the opposite conclusion. It seems to be that the Gospel anticipations of the birth of the Messiah is rife with a very realized eschatology (e.g. the present tense declarations in Lk 1 and 2 by Mary and the Shepherds). I cannot claim to be a Biblical specialist in any respect, but for whatever reason I appreciate that my thankfulness for what Christ is up to in the world starts here and does not begin only after His resurrection. It seems to be that only in learning to anticipate Christ’s first coming, that we come to understand what it means to live in anticipation of His second. Though I find myself to be typically critical of most “church music,” I have found that the liturgy facilitates this kind of anticipation very well.

  6. Hmm, can’t say I’m in agreement on your summation of Advent. If anything it’s meant to highlight the already/not yet existence we live in. Christ is come in the flesh (Incarnation, first Advent). Christ rules and yet we await the consummation of that rule (second Advent). I LOVE Advent for that very reason, it gives me a chance every year to reclaim eschatology from the whack-jobs and highlight that Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation – and not “Jesus’ Birthday.” If anything, I think the lack of a calendar has contributed to the liturgical befuddlement which is crushing most low-churches.

    On the other hand, I could sing your two favorite hymns for this season and they would never get old.

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