Well, December is upon us and the clamour and chaos of Christmas preparations grows ever louder, however allow me to ask you to tarry a moment to consider the season that we currently find ourselves in – Advent.
To be honest, I’d imagine that most Christians have little idea what this period of ‘Advent’ is actually about, let alone those outside the church – I certainly didn’t until I started attending an Anglican church more regularly. For the uninitiated, Advent is a season in the church calendar that lasts from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas Eve. The name ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’ which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. As such, the season has a twin focus – firstly on the first coming of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas and secondly thinking ahead to Jesus’ Second Coming, which didn’t happen last year, despite the best efforts of Harold Camping to predict it thus. If you’re looking for more detail about Advent, you can have a look here and here. However, I don’t so much want to focus on the details of how we mark Advent, but to offer a few thoughts on why we should perhaps give it a bit more attention.
One thought that came to me the other week was that of all the different themes and ‘seasons’ that Christians remember over the year, Advent is perhaps the most counter-cultural in the way it seeks to shake us from our focus on the here and now. It simultaneously calls us to look back and to look ahead – and in so doing, it forces us to take stock of the point in time that we are currently located in.
One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is its relentless focus on the present, to the exclusion of both learning from the wisdom of the past and giving scant regard to the long-term effects of decisions taken today. While there are a great many blessings that have come from the technological advances of recent decades, one of the downsides has been an expectation of immediacy in all areas of life. We see this in pre-prepared frozen meals that can be ready in a matter of minutes, with instant news fed through from 24-hour news channels – and if that’s too slow for you, it’ll be up on Twitter even more quickly. There are many more examples of this cultural trend and while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that we rarely take time to wait and reflect on things. In such times as we are expected to wait for something, the response is usually one of frustration, whether it’s a laptop taking it’s time to start up or a train that is delayed in rush hour. The deeply embedded narrative of ‘progress’ means that anything that happened in the past is deemed old-fashioned and ‘out-of-date’, which essentially amounts to an industrial amount of what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’, thus blinding us to the weaknesses of our own age.
Advent is the very antithesis of this – firstly by calling us to think back to an event that happened over 2000 years ago in a remote village in Roman-controlled Judea and secondly by causing us to remember that things will not always be as they are now, that history has a start, a middle and an end. However, while many of us are comfortable with the idea of something changing in the future, we always want to know when it is going to happen. The twist in Advent, however, is that we don’t know when this Second Coming is going to happen, we are merely told that it will indeed happen. The proper response in the light of this reality, therefore, is patient hope, something that few of us today are particularly good at! This patient hope is no passive waiting around wishing things to be better, however, but rather a sober realisation that many of the things we spend so much time worrying about are contingent and not ultimate and that our life now is to be always lived in the light of that coming Day.
One of the most fruitful things to come out of my Master’s study in Theology & Politics is a renewed interest in the Augustinian concept of the ‘secular’ – that is the recognition that the time between Jesus’ Resurrection/Ascension and his return is a time of uncertainty and tension between the Kingdom of God, the coming of which Jesus heralded, and the Kingdom of Man (or City of God and City of Man in Augustine’s usage1). The world is not yet fully reconciled to God, but this reconciliation has started and it is the mission of God’s people in this world to be ‘ministers of reconciliation‘ as we wait for God’s promised final reconciliation of all things. However, in this contested, in-between time, we will always experience frustration and tension as we see how much things fall short of the promised ideal, whether it’s in our work, in those around us rejecting God’s offer of reconciliation, in our imperfect church families and in our own lives as we struggle against the ‘sin that so easily ensnares us‘. While this is something we experience every day in our lives as Christians, it is at Advent that we are particularly mindful of these things.
Advent gives us space to come to terms with the reality of these tensions and, instead of hurtling on onwards to the next thing on our lists, it encourages us to lift our eyes from our daily circumstances and look ahead to our promised and future hope, when all the frustrations that we experience now will melt away in the light of Jesus’ return and the fully-inaugurated Kingdom that He will usher in. Having taken encouragement from reminding ourselves that, because of what Jesus won for us 2000 years ago through his death and resurrection, our future hope is secure and the end of history has already been decided, we can live our lives in the light of this, not ignoring the circumstances that God has called us into, but living faithfully in the midst of them.
Of course, the reality is that we will continue to struggle to call these things to mind, because the very nature of this ‘secular’ time is that there will continue to be a struggle to live out faithfully that to which we have been called. So I’ll continue to groan when my train is delayed or iPlayer doesn’t play my TV programme instantaneously, but hopefully this Advent season, we can shift our gaze momentarily from the hustle & bustle of Christmas shopping, ghastly Littlewoods adverts, the finals of X Factor & Strictly and all that feasting, to remember that around 2,016 years ago, God in His gracious love came to be with us in the form of a child and that one day He will return to make all things new, fulfilling all that He has promised.