“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isa. 64:4).
It’s almost time for Advent. Advent is both a matter of history and a matter of festivity. It is, in the first place, a matter of history because before Advent is an annual holiday for Christians across the world it is the single event of Christ coming into the world: the Incarnation, the enfleshment, of the Son of God. And Christians not only celebrate Advent annually to remember the coming of Christ into the world but also to anticipate the coming of Christ into the world again. The first Advent came with the promise of a second Advent. We can greet an otherwise uncertain future with hope because we are certain Christ will arrive in the future to receive us. And so the Church’s Memorial Acclamation resounds daily in worship services across the globe: Christ has died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again! Christian memory is at once a form of anticipation. History has taken the shape of a promise.
So Advent is the season especially set aside for waiting, the time we remember how to anticipate God’s promised future and remember that our God is a God who delivers on his promises, even if it means being delivered in a barn and laid in a manger.
That is why Advent is also a matter of festivity. Christian festivity is about both memory and anticipation, about a certain past that promises a certain future. Advent marks the beginning of the Christian (liturgical) year, which revolves around the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the birth of Jesus doesn’t begin with Christmas Day any more than the Bible begins with Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel was a promise in history long before it was an event in history. And so the Christian year begins with a longing for Christmas. That is what Advent is all about. The most basic meaning of the word advent is to ‘come to’, not simply ‘to come’ but specifically to ‘come to‘. It implies a specific place where anticipation is met with arrival. During the season of Advent, the Church waits for Christ to come again into our world by waiting on Christmas to come again into our world. If Christmas is the time for gifts and celebration, Advent is the time for restraint and anticipation. We are ushered into this season not with the rush of Black Friday traffic but with the Silent Night of Israel’s longing:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
To ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
This all begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and concludes on Christmas Day, which is the Church’s New Year’s Day. A few months after Christmas the Church enters the season of Lent, which culminates in the Passion Weekend (the Paschal Triduum), concluding on Easter Sunday. Forty days after Easter is the celebration of the ascension of Jesus to his throne in heaven. And finally, fifty days after Easter, the Christian festive year concludes with Pentecost, remembering the day the Holy Spirit flooded the earth and filled the Church.
To remember the event of Pentecost and the story that led to it is to understand what time it is at present in salvation history. It is our orientation for everyday life. God’s Spirit has been poured on all flesh and the Church has been sent as witnesses of Jesus Christ so that those who believe may be saved from their sins and filled with the Spirit. So the Christian Calendar is not merely about festivity—it’s about identity.
The time from Pentecost to Advent is called Kingdomtide (or Ordinary Time in less imaginative traditions). Together the sense of this time can be understood: the Church understands its everyday ordinary world, not just its Sunday religious world or its seasonal festive world, as the context of God’s kingdom. Christians are the everyday ordinary citizens of that kingdom. And so the focus in Ordinary Time is the extraordinary mission of God’s Kingdom advancing through the Gospel to the ends of the ordinary earth.
So the Church spends roughly the first half of the Christian year, in effect, reenacting the Gospel story, which not only helps older the older generation remember who they are in Christ, which gains a new aspect of importance for dealing with the inevitable experiences of loss in the last chapters of life, but it also helps teach younger generations who they are in Christ, which is critical for establishing their identity in the first chapters of life. And the Church spends the second half of the Christian year focused on taking that story to the streets—the first half on remembering, the second half on continuing. So following the rhythms of the Christian year nurture both education and formation. It is the education of embodiment, the most appropriate for kind of education for the God of Incarnation, the embodiment of the Son of God—Emmanuel.
Precisely because the Gospel story has not ended, precisely because the Holy Spirit is here and Christ will come again, the Church continues that to-be-continued story by living as witnesses of Christ in anticipation of his return. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom. 10:15; Isa. 52:7). How beautiful, that is, is faith that is embodied. Indeed, faith without legs is dead.
And so it is time. It’s time to wait for the God “who acts for those who wait on him” (Isa. 64:4). It’s time to enter again the world of waiting, the world of promise, the world where God has come with a promise to come again, and to bring with him an incomparably greater world—this one.