Advent is easily missed, lost in the fog of our consumerist culture that draws us to focus on Christmas and hurry our way to celebration. Feasting, celebration and gifts are fitting human expressions in response to the good news of the infant born in Bethlehem, destined to redeem the world. That divine in-breaking into history, that promise-filled moment of God-with-us is ample cause for rejoicing. In the days before Christmas Advent calls us to a different awareness and response. In one of his Christmas Sermons theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. He is, and always will be now, with us in our sin, in our suffering, and at our death.
Advent is a time for us to face the darkness, to acknowledge humanity’s moral and spiritual failures and the bleak consequences of those failures. One ever-present temptation of the season is to slip to sentimentality and to embrace a hope that sits on the surface, having failed to discern the extent of what has been promised. Note the poetic words of the prophet:
Comfort, O comfort my people says your God, … A voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40: 1, 3)
These words come in the wake of a long captivity in Babylon, which was a time of judgment and restraint. They are words echoing across the centuries and directing us to two divine arrivals, one in Bethlehem and one yet to come when all things will be made new. They also allude to the Forerunner, John the Baptist whose voice cried in the wilderness, whose finger consistently pointed to Jesus and whose preaching called us to “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. We do well to reflect on what the cry “to prepare…” might mean for us.
Cheerfulness is not the mood for Advent. It calls for a more somber disposition that comes with the acknowledgement of the dark realities of our world: social and political unrest, an unsettled natural order, destructive patterns of human behaviour, illness, suffering and death and the pervasive uncertainty that characterizes contemporary life. Advent is the time to resist our inclination to avert our eyes and our thoughts from these threatening undercurrents and instead to have the courage to face the sobering realities that surround us and those that reside within us. For many, Advent may bring about an experience of divine absence not unlike what the exiles in Babylon may have felt. The Christmas story is a story of a divine gesture of engagement in and with our dark and sinful world; it is a story of God-with-us as a participant in that world in order to redeem it.
However Advent reaches beyond that first arrival to the not-yet of another coming. Advent is a season to attend to the Second Coming. This is a topic that has created discomfort and even embarrassment in some faith communities. But we should not settle for a story half told. What was launched in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is an unfinished project destined to be completed. Herein rests the hope of the believer. It is not a thin hope that things will get better or that we simply live in quiet expectation. Rather it is a deep hope that touches all aspects of life, it impacts what we think, what we do and what we value. It informs how we see the world and what might be possible in it. “Thy kingdom come thy will be done” is a prayer uttered daily around the world reminding us that our hope is grounded not in what humanity can do for itself but in what God has promised to do for us. Advent has an eschatological orientation in that it attends to a promise of what is yet to come and has an eye on the culmination of history when all things will be made new. The faith community is called to manifest that promise in how it lives.
I have on occasions past noted that the arts speak to this Advent focus. The arts provide glimpses, hints, signs that there is something more than meets the eye. The arts are expressions of hope born of imagination and longing and at their best they nurture a hopeful spirit and sustain us when current circumstances seem only to foster despair. They provide a portal through which we catch a glimpse of what a world made new might be like. Art that has integrity does not ignore the darkness but tells the truth about the way things are and in so doing may awaken the receiver to transforming discoveries.