We typically begin Advent with the great hymn “O Come Emmanuel.” Emmanuel means “God With Us” so it can seem strange that we are summoning someone whom we believe is already here. I can imagine Christ saying “Hello! I’m right over here!” (which was pretty much the point of last week’s Gospel of the sheep and the goats). And didn’t he arrive when we summoned him so earnestly last Advent? Come again?
The ancient Advent themes were Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment and at one time Advent was treated almost like Lent, with very little of the joy and excitement of anticipating a birth and more focus on Christ’s Second Coming in judgment. Christians now can be quite curmudgeonly and judgmental about the way the retail world turns the season into a blizzard of ads and promises and traffic jams around the shopping malls. But I don’t think Advent is a time for pitting ourselves against commercialism or carping about the ways other people find happiness.
American writer Lydia McGrew wrote something that made a lot of sense to me: When she was first being introduced to Anglicanism, she encountered a tendency to overemphasize the concept that “’Advent is a penitential season.’ I have to say that to those new to Anglicanism, and even to old hands like me, such an overemphasis has all the winsomeness of the Grinch. And it’s theologically misguided, too. Joy in the anticipation of Christmas isn’t some sort of frivolous modern invention. There is no Good Friday at the end of Advent.”
We work through a cycle of seasons each year, and I know some people get bored with seasons and just move to Palm Springs, but for many there is value and even wisdom in moving through the distinct differences each season offers. Fall is not the same as Spring, Summer and Winter offer us different insights and possibilities (especially when you’re from Saskatchewan!). As Jesus said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” And so in the Church year Advent has its own emphasis and that emphasis makes Christmas and Epiphany that much more joyous and appreciated.
But there is another reason for us to give the season of Advent a certain attention and integrity . . .
In the past year, we have seen repeated images of a new kind of barbarism coming out of Africa and Syria, and images of angry young men from places like Calgary and Ottawa and London and Amsterdam shouting warnings to the countries that raised them that they are planning on returning with anger and some twisted sense of vengeance – that they are coming to destroy.
In places like Canada, we are trying to build a tolerant, inclusive and just society but it always seems there are forces that only allow the process to go so far, forces that threaten these societies and cause them to become defensive or self-destructive or to enter into conflict. Perhaps it’s a reminder that we cannot create the kingdom – we can only build so far. As the Psalm says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the people who build it labour in vain.” We don’t stop building, but as people of faith we pray for God’s kingdom to come – we acknowledge the need for that kingdom which only God can create — the peaceable Kingdom – the kingdom we see portrayed in Isaiah with the wolf lying down with the lamb. In Advent, we look toward the possibility of a greater glory.
Isaiah’s prophecies were spoken into a time of oppression, violence, dislocation and a loss of faith, a time when hope was almost impossible to sustain. Isaiah evokes the seasons when he says “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” But he is pointing toward a time of rebirth; a time of renewal and restoration – through Isaiah we hear God saying, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind … They shall build … they shall plant … and they shall not labour in vain” (Isa. 65).
Clearly the need for that kind of vision is more intense now than ever – the importance of actively seeking and building the kingdom and not being complacent or apathetic – not allowing cynicism or determinism to become our outlook on life. Jesus urges people to wake up because that kind of outlook is a kind of death.
We can tend to forget Christ’s presence and purpose; we can forget our own purpose. So it needs to be renewed regularly – we need to be born again each year in the magic and wonder of Christmas and the Christ Child.
In Christ God is among us, sharing and inspiring our hopes and dreams. Yet even though we know that Christ is with us, there is still excitement, there is still a joyful anticipation even though we know that Christ is already among us. The kingdom is not yet here; Advent serves to remind us of the not-yet aspect of human life. God has indeed become present and available, and yet still stands at the door and knocks. Christ is risen, and yet Christ still hangs on the Cross.
Advent reminds us that we are not people wo are just stuck in the present – with the present mess. We have a future; we have a hope; things can change; things do change. So we re-visit the great scripture stories and we tell stories like those of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch to remind ourselves of the possibility of transformation.
Pope Francis, speaking about the purpose of Advent, said: “The time of Advent that we begin again today returns us to the horizon of hope, a hope that does not disappoint because it is founded on the Word of God.” Advent (he said) is “a new journey of the People of God with Jesus Christ, our Shepherd, who guides us in history towards the completion of the Kingdom of God . . . The journey is never finished. Just as in each of our own lives, there is always a need to restart, to rise again, to recover a sense of the goal of one’s own existence.”
Advent puts us in touch with the faith journeys of many – the journey of Elizabeth to Mary; the journey of the Holy Family; the journey of the Magi; the journey of the shepherds to the stable; the journey of the human heart to its true centre. They are journeys of hope and fulfillment and wonder.
During Advent, when we say “O come, Emmanuel” or “thy kingdom come” we are called to pray with renewed intensity for the full realization of the only power that can actually bring the redemption and fulfilment that we and the entire human race need so badly, and at times so obviously and tragically. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for Advent I:
Isaiah 64:1-9 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Mark 13:24-37 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.