Overdue Reflections on Advent

The message of Advent is one that is often overshadowed by the Christmas event itself, and for all the wrong reasons. Christmas has become a time characterized mostly by a gross amount of consumption and the telling of pagan myths about a fat guy in a red suit who rewards kids who have been good by giving them a bunch of stuff they don’t really need. The anticipation of Christmas morning starts usually after Thanksgiving for us in the States. In the midst of the anticipation it becomes easy to forget what the time leading up to Christmas, namely Advent, actually symbolizes. Advent is indeed a time of remembering. Each year as we relive the Christ event in our worship and our liturgy we begin by remembering the coming of God into the world in the form of a little baby. The incarnation really is a miraculous event. God, the Creator of all things, chooses to redeem humanity from sin and death by subjecting himself to his very creation. He becomes dependent on us. Our understanding of power and victory is turned on its head as we realize that true conquering comes in the form of self-sacrifice as opposed to violence and coercion. In the words of St. Paul: Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…” (Phil. 2:6-9). Jesus won not because he was macho or powerful (in the conventional sense of the word), out-wrestling his opponents with brute strength. He won because he died. He won because he came as a helpless baby. This is what we remember at advent. We remember the past. We remember Jesus.

But advent is certainly more than remembering. It is also about waiting. We anticipate the coming of Christ a second time. Indeed the Scriptural narrative ends with a plea for the coming of Christ: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 21:20). One quickly realizes that we are not much different than first century Jews, waiting for the coming of God that all things might be fully redeemed and made new. Just as characters like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah were waiting for the promised Messiah, so we modern day saints await the coming of Jesus for a second time. Advent is about waiting. It is about the future. We anticipate the renewal of heaven and earth.

Is there a third element of Advent, however, that we often neglect? It is my contention that there is indeed something that we miss in the season of Advent when we emphasize only the past and the future. The reality is that the life of discipleship is not lived in the past or the future but the present. In fact, the reason why we remember the past and anticipate the future is so that we are empowered to live as Jesus calls us to in the present.

I want to propose to you that Advent is just as much a present event as it is a past and a future event. Jesus came, will come and is coming presently. It is this third element that is too often missed. The way we often talk about the second coming of Jesus is not helpful when it comes to realizing the implications of the Advent event for the present. Often we think of the second coming as a day when God acts finally and decisively in order to accomplish what his church could not. The result of this way of thinking is that we end up sitting idly by, waiting for God to come and do what only he can do on his own. What’s the use of attempting to build for God’s Kingdom if he’s going to come and let us off the hook sometime in the future anyway. Our eschatology basically becomes a way of pushing our responsibilities for the present off onto God in the future. This life becomes about just getting by, holding on a little bit longer for Jesus to come back and lay the smack down on all things evil.

What if the yearning for the coming of God in the future that we see in the Scriptures is really an invitation for us to allow God to come in our lives daily? What if Jesus is longing to come into the world through us in each moment as we are faced every day with the choice between love or selfishness. This is, I believe the beauty of the incarnation: not that God became man once for all time but that God is continually being incarnated in and through us as we choose love and gentleness, kindness and compassion. Jesus is a model of obedience for us as we attempt to live the incarnation in our day to day life. As we love, we see God come. Advent becomes about the present.

This is what Jesus is getting at in John 14 when Judas asks Jesus why he chooses only to show himself to his disciples and not to the whole world. Jesus responds almost cryptically, typical of the Jesus character in John’s gospel: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). At first glance it seems that Jesus is skirting the issue. Instead of answering Judas’ question Jesus seems to be simply reiterating his emphasis on obedience. However, I think there is more going on here. Notice the result of love of Jesus and obedience to his commands (which can be summed up in with the word “love”): God comes and makes his home in us. Jesus responds to Judas by essentially saying that he is indeed showing himself to the world. When people love each other then he comes. The world sees the coming of God each time compassion is chosen over neglect and love is chosen over hate.

It is my hope that we would be a people that allows for the coming of God to take place within us. Each time we give a listening ear to someone who is hurting or give up our time and energy for the sake of our brother or sister, God is made manifest. Jesus comes in our love. Advent becomes about the present. The possibilities really are endless. Let us open our eyes to the coming of God in our midst. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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