As a young person, Lent was the season of the church year that resonated with me most. A substantial period of 40 days – always longer than a calendar month, sometimes spanning three – Lent sets aside time each year for us to discern the person of faith God calls each of us to be. Who am I, or perhaps where am I in my relationship to God and my neighbors? – an important question for all of us, and especially for anyone trying to discover a path and vocation in life. During Lent we consider various disciplines and commitments– things we can do or, often, give up and not do – to bring us into better relationship. These are concrete things, I used to think – almsgiving, fasting, and prayer; by doing them, I can become a better person and Christian. During Holy Week, I can ponder Jesus’ gift of self in the Eucharist and in service to others, his enormous sacrifice on the cross, and the freedom from death and sin won for us, as we in turn commit and recommit ourselves to living life in Christ. This is life-changing stuff, and, indeed, it was for me.
The older I get, however, the more entranced I am by Advent, the indefinite three-to-four-week season of promise, preparation, and anticipation before Christmas. I’ll admit, the natural season and weather help: as we hear the yearning for the Messiah in Scripture, in the northern hemisphere we too yearn for light as the days grow shorter; the cooler weather (even in southern California!) draws us inside for expectant warmth and the closeness of community, around hearths and tables. In Advent we hear beautiful descriptions the prophets proclaim of the coming kingdom of God, where “the wolf lies down with the lamb,” where “the eyes of the blind are opened” (Isaiah 11); where God’s Spirit “brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the broken-hearted, and proclaims liberty to captives” (Isaiah 61). These stories inspire us with a vision of a world yet to come, for Advent is indeed an in-between time: it’s not Christmas yet, we know, and, while Christ has come in history, foretold by prophets, longed for by nations, and celebrated at Christmas, he is still to come at the end of time.
Advent speaks to us in this in-between time in which we live – a time I can probably appreciate more now than when I was younger, impatient for Christmas, ready for life and vocation to hurry up and begin. While Lent prompts important questions about our commitment to life in Christ, the questions we hear in Scripture in Advent are different and come from people who are confused in their particular moment:
- Jewish priests ask John the Baptist, “Who are you? Are you the prophet? Elijah? The Messiah?”
- In Isaiah, a voice says, “Cry out.” “What shall I cry?” is the immediate response.
- Elizabeth wonders, “Why has this happened to me?”
- An incredulous Mary asks the angel, “How can this be?”
Advent gives us permission to be confused, to linger in the in-between stages of life without full answers, confident in God’s promises, yet uncertain as to how they will play out.
Advent’s focus is different, too. While Lent asks how we act and who we are in relation to God and neighbor, Advent asks, “Who is God in relation to us?” The God Advent proclaims is “God-with-us,” Emmanuel, a God who has acted before us in the greatest deed of love and empathy the world has ever seen, the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in humanity. This God participates in the full life and experience, promise and suffering of humanity in all ways but sin. This God knows us by walking with us, modeling what Pope Francis calls the most gracious act of human “accompaniment” through joys and sorrows, knowing them as we do in earthy, gritty human experience.
The challenge for us, then, is the same as it was for Jesus’ mother Mary: how can we prepare our hearts and homes to receive this presence and love—unasked for, yet promised and sure to come? How might we respond to this gift? God and the church invite us to linger in this Advent season, to celebrate its promise amid our confusion, and to wonder at and respond to the tangible, human presence of God in our midst. Here are a few ways of doing so this year:
- Take part in the Advent Faith-at-Home workshop Friday evening, December 1, and make your own Advent wreath to help mark the weeks of this season. Hold off on Christmas decorations if you can, and enjoy the pregnant days of Advent with its deep blues and purples. Be conscious of the passage of Advent time and the opportunity to prepare for the in-breaking of Christmas light;
- Participate in the quiet, candlelit peace of Celtic liturgy Saturday evenings at 5 p.m. during Advent, and hear the earthy language of the Celtic tradition that especially recognizes God’s presence in all life;
- Mark the beginning of Advent with Advent Lessons and Carols Sunday, December 3 at 4 p.m., and experience God’s promises, our human questions, and the season’s rich interplay of darkness and light in Scripture and song;
- Accompany others who remember loss or struggle to find joy at this time of year at Blue Christmas services Wednesday, December 20 at 9:45 a.m. and 7 p.m.;
- Celebrate Mary’s confusion and assent to God’s indwelling within her the 4th Sunday of Advent on December 24 separate from Jesus’ birth later that day. Help transform the church following the 10:15 a.m. service from Advent to Christmas decorations;
- Finally, fully celebrate the awesome wonder of Christmas, God’s redemptive indwelling in us, throughout the nearly two weeks of the Christmas season;
In the end, Advent is less about who we are or the things we do or commit to in the Christian life and more an invitation to live in God’s indefinite time before the next coming and a reminder of who God is in relation to us. How can we live fully into this time of waiting? How can we respond to God’s action of Incarnation? Who will we be at God’s coming? Whom can we accompany this Advent? Whose life and flesh can we take on?