“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 into the world: the Incarnation 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
Indeed, we wait and so rejoice, both that Christ has come and that Christ is coming again. So each year the Church relives our story of Salvation from slavery to sin through festive celebrations, just as Israel, instructed by Law, relived its story of Salvation from slavery to Pharaoh through its festive celebrations (Lev. 23). It is the education of embodiment, an annual reorientation to the coming of Christ into a world that constantly disorients us. It is also one of our greatest tools for teaching youth and new believers the Gospel in a way that situates it in the world of flesh and blood and living rooms and dining halls and silver bells and seasonal smells–our world.
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. Indeed, Christian festivity is not about novelty—it’s about identity.
The time from Pentecost to Advent is called Ordinary Time, or Kingdomtide in some 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 its year, in effect, reenacting the Gospel story, which not only helps older folks remember who they are in Christ but also helps teach younger folks who they are in Christ. It is the education of embodiment, which is most appropriate for the education of the Incarnation, the embodiment of the Son of God.
Roughly the second half of the year is focused on taking that story to the streets—the first half on remembering, the second half on continuing. 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.
This rhythm of life is essential for Christian formation. It’s God’s design in the first place. God commanded Israel both to rest and to work, to celebrate and to serve, to remember and to continue. Indeed, this rhythm is embedded into of Israel’s calendar year by law (Lev. 23). Israel’s festive season, like the Church’s, revolved around God’s decisive acts of salvation. It began with Passover, remembering its origin as a nation when God rescued them from slavery in Egypt according to his promise to Abraham, and continued along a total of seven annual festivals through which the people reenacted their story, from the Exodus to the Wilderness Wanderings and on into the Promise Land. The rhythm: rest and work, celebrate and serve, remember and continue—the education of embodiment.
Many churches have unfortunately shied away in recent history from the Church’s festive nature, but in so doing the Church has suffered from some devastating memory loss, forgetting some really basic things like Jesus saves and God is sovereign. The Church’s festive seasons are designed to help us shore up our memory, to “take care lest [we] forget the Lord [our] God who brought [us] out…of the house of slavery” and end up repeating some history other than God’s history, walking toward some future other than the one God has promised, which inevitably leads to nowhere at best but more likely to another god (Ps. 78:10-11; Isa. 51:12-13; Jer. 2:28, 32; Ezek. 16:43; cf. Deut. 6-8). So our times of rest and celebration, retreat and regrouping, are both for our good and the good of the world. The world needs far more than just our service. It needs our celebration. It needs our joy. It needs our Christmas.
This is why year after year skeptics of the Christian faith can’t help but indulging in the holy-days of the Christian faith. It’s not our most ‘contextualized’ message the world wants to hear; it’s our least. They want something foreign, because they obviously haven’t found anything native worth celebrating, nothing that endures at least. They can try to disguise it all they want, as though “Happy Holy-days” is any less religious than “Merry Christmas,” as though they aren’t looking for something holy to celebrate like the rest of us. So they don’t want our Christ wrapped in their pragmatism. They want our Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying useless in a manger, just the way we want him.
That’s where the world found him in the first place, the day the magi–-those pagan astrologist standing over the baby Jesus on your fireplace–-found him, when “they bowed down and worshiped him…opening up their treasures and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” The pagan world has always been drawn to the gift of Christmas. Indeed, it was the first to offer anything back. The world opened up and offered its treasures because it somehow knew that heaven had opened up and offered its Treasure. It took pagans to discover that Christmas really does mean ‘Joy to the World’. And this is simply because the world’s longing is in the exact shape of the Christian hope. Hope is just longing that’s been filled, and the Christmas message endures as the articulation of that longing from the other side of the promise that fills it.
So let us not be outdone. Let us keep the festival! Our festive seasons are becoming more and more important to observe in times when festivity seems less and less appropriate. When there’s much to be done and much to be grieved, it is time for Advent. When terrorism is spreading and when there refugees fleeing, it is time for Advent. When it feels like the “days of Herod” (Lk. 1:5) and the earth is longing for her True King, it is time for Advent. When it begins to look like the world could only be saved if God himself would come and save it—then it is time for Advent. For it is when God must come that we most need to remember that He has come and to believe that he will come again. The world of exile is longing for the God of Exodus.
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.