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.
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.