Advent is a time of waiting. And it is the time leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. This might create the mistaken impression that Advent is time when we sit around waiting for the Messiah to be born.
That’s not it. Though we are waiting for the Messiah.
Advent is a time when we sit between the first and second comings of the Messiah. It’s the time that we look forward to the time when every tear will be dried, every wound healed, every prisoner set free–because we remember that the Messiah has already appeared as the tear-drier, the wound-healer, the liberator of the oppressed.
Paradoxically, this is the time when our belief that Jesus is the Messiah brings us into deepest solidarity with our Jewish friends who don’t. That’s because it reminds us that both of us are still awaiting the Messiah, still waiting for the arrival of the reign of God that actually changes everything here below. Forever.
If you have followed me for any length of time you know that I have been haunted by this line from Martin Buber:
To the Jew the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who proclaims redemption in an unredeemed world.
Advent is when we live into this–both our incomprehensible daring, and the failure of redemption to fully and finally work itself out.
That’s why Advent we sing with longing for what is not yet:
O come, o come, Emmanuel!
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the son of God appear.
While at the same time we sing with celebration for what has already come:
Emmanuel has ransomed captive Israel!
How can we so quickly jump from the plaintive cries for redemption to celebratory cries at its already having come?
What we’re doing as a people when we sing that song is to name what we long for as the very thing that God has already begun, what God has done before.
Like the psalms that recall the past in order to then turn and say to God, “Be your best self now, as you were then!” we remember the labor pangs of waiting for Christmas that gave birth to the Messiah and invite God to turn our own pains into promised redemption as well.
At an interview for Homebrewed Christianity on the eve of the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, Jürgen Moltmann was asked how he can speak of hope, how he can entrust himself to hope, in world as filled with trouble as ours.
His answer? We hope “as an act of resistance.”
Resistance to the despair, resistance to the powers themselves.
Waiting for the Messiah to come or to return, entrusting ourselves to such hope, is our way of saying that the exploitative, death-dealing powers of this world do not have the last word.
Our God will have that word. And our God’s Messiah is coming to speak it.