We are only a week away from exclaiming, “Happy New Year!”
I know you must be thinking that my forward planning has gotten out of hand and I’m in need of more coffee and a new calendar but bear with me. Advent is almost here. Rejoice!
Yes, we’re a week away from the dawn of Advent, the first day of the new year in the Church’s calendar. The Church’s calendar has its own beautiful rhythm that redeems the time in our evil days. It begins with Advent, moves to Christmas and then Epiphany, on into a Lent that begins with Ash Wednesday and includes Transfiguration, followed by Easter, culminating in Ascension and Pentecost, and crowned by Trinity Sunday. Yes, I know the other calendar, the Hallmark one, that lives off the Church’s calendar like a parasite, killing it’s host while introducing national celebrations that for many believers hold more meaning than the Scriptural days. Alas. I m not opposed to New Years Day or Mother’s Day or the Fourth of July; I just dislike very much that they mean more to most than the Feast of Ascension.
But I absolutely do love Advent… and its high time we take it back from the hijackers who tethered it to Black Friday and reduced it to a Christmas countdown. Yes, I love Advent and its newness, it’s hymns and texts, it’s hope in sorrow and light in the darkness. I especially like that it isn’t Christmas.
That’s right. Advent is not Christmas.
I know it’s Christmas at Macy’s, Lowes, on Amazon, and on the radio and TV. It just isn’t Christmas in the Church. Not yet. We have that all rather backward actually. Christmas begins on December 24th at midnight with a Christmas Eve vigil and celebration of Christ’s birth. It extends for twelve days, not just one; it’s why that song ‘ the Twelve Days of Christmas actually was written to begin with. It lasts all the way to January 6, which is Epiphany Sunday, usually marked by the arrival of the Magi from the East. It includes the commemoration of the first martyr St. Stephen (December 26), connecting him with the first innocents killed by state power because Jesus is the true King, the baby boys of Bethlehem (December 28, the Feast of Holy Innocents), and the first time Jesus sheds his blood in obedience to God’s Law and Covenant to secure our salvation, the Circumcision of Jesus (January 2).
Advent’s Beauty: Light the Night
But back to Advent. What’s that about?
It’s about the Coming (Advent) of the Lord. We begin our new year with the end in view. That’s called wisdom. It’s good to begin a journey with the destination in mind. Happy New Year, Christian, here is where we are going: Christ is coming. If you attend a church that keeps Advent and uses the appointed texts of Scripture for this season, you’ll hear about King Jesus coming on the clouds with judgment, not just King Jesus showing up in a manger.
Not that these are disconnected. The first and second Advents of Jesus are most assuredly joined together in an inseparable bond. For both God’s people wait and long in hope; surrounded by darkness that feels crushing and overwhelming at times, God’s people simply hold on to the promissory notes of the prophets and whisper to one another, “He who is coming will come.”
It’s why we sing ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’ and ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ in Advent.
It’s also why we sing ‘Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending’ in Advent too.
On this dual aspect of Advent and Christ’s coming, St Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom. At the first coming, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming, he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming, he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels. We look then beyond the first coming and await the second. At the first coming, we said: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. At the second we shall say it again; we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
The Savior will not come to be judged again, but to judge those by whom he was judged. At his own judgment he was silent; then he will address those who committed the outrages against him when they crucified him and will remind them: You did these things, and I was silent.
His first coming was to fulfill his plan of love, to teach men by gentle persuasion. This time, whether men like it or not, they will be subjects of his kingdom by necessity. The prophet Malachi speaks of the two comings. And the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple: that is one coming.
Again he says of another coming: Look, the Lord Almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight? Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing.
These two comings are also referred to by Paul in writing to Titus: The grace of God the Savior has appeared to all men, instructing us to put aside impiety and worldly desires and live temperately, uprightly, and religiously in this present age, waiting for the joyful hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Notice how he speaks of a first coming for which he gives thanks, and a second, the one we still await.
Finding Jesus in Advent
Now I know that this feels all weird and counter-intuitive, but it’s pretty important. Christians these days are losing Jesus under the discarded wrapping paper of presents and it’s a dangerous thing to lose sight of where we’re going on this pilgrimage of faith, to fail to notice the why behind the first coming that is signified by the second. If we continue along this path we will pay insufficient attention to the darkness and consequently give inadequate emphasis to the hope of the Gospel. “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” That quote is attributed to Augustine, and even though he probably never said those words, they do reflect the Gospel power of Advent. When we light the candles, we can feel both anger and courage rising, anchored to the Hope that ‘he who is coming will come, and will not delay.” It turns out, whether or not one believes that the arc of history bends towards justice, the goal of history in Jesus Christ will be realized. The God of promise keeps his word.
So even if we hurry with the Shepherds to the manger when we hear of Christ’s birth, let’s not hurry the angels in their glad tidings of great joy. Let the darkness that opens Advent deepen and be truly known. Then let the lights on the wreath grow each week, dispelling the night, until the new day dawns.
O Come O Come Emmanuel
Thou shalt reign and Thou alone…
These are the twinned lyrics of Advent and we need both to fill our hearts and fill out our Faith.
Happy New Year!
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