The Advent Conundrum

I’ve celebrated Advent all my life, and it has always struck me as a bit strange.  After all, how is it that we are supposed to be all anxious and vigilant, waiting for an event that happened 2000 years ago already?  I mean, where’s the suspense in that?  Why not just jump to Christmas and be done with it?

I mentioned last year that I would be reading a second book on the liturgical year and the lectionary cycle of readings that support it, Fritz West’s Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries.  I know, I know – you can hardly wait to run out and get your copy of it, right?
It’s interesting and technical reading, but if your congregation/pastor utilizes the three-year lectionary readings, it might be a very helpful read in understanding better what the readings are doing and why they have been selected.  It might make a good gift for your pastor, unless you think he’s going to think that you don’t think his preaching is good enough.  In which case, tell him to get over himself and give it a read.  I don’t know anyone in any profession who doesn’t benefit by continued education and skill development, and pastors are certainly no exception!
Be aware, however, that if you’re an LCMS congregation, you’re likely using a revised version of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  Because Lutherans are quirky (and because I haven’t found a better, more official answer), we’ve slightly modified the RCL at points.  I have no doubt there are good theological reasons for this, but it makes reading books on the RCL a bit frustrating, as they don’t take into account our variations on the RCL.  But the overall structure and the majority of the readings are the same, so it’s still a good gift/read.  
As I was reviewing this book with the change of liturgical season to Advent this Sunday, I appreciated West’s explanation of the purpose and structure of Advent.  Maybe you will, too.
Advent links together two separate sections of what is referred to in the liturgical year as Ordinary Time.  Ordinary Time consists of those Sundays of the Church year that don’t have special significance to them.  They aren’t part of either Advent or Lent and they aren’t feast or festival Sundays.  The bulk of Ordinary Time runs from the Sunday after Pentecost through to the last Sunday of the Church Year, right before Advent begins.  But the first section of it in the Church year comes between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent.  Advent therefore links the end of Ordinary Time in the last Church Year with the beginning of Ordinary Time in the new Church Year.
The end of Ordinary Time in the last Church year culminates on Christ the King Sunday.  But actually, the last three Sundays of the Church Year/Ordinary Time focus on the end times and the return of Jesus Christ.  This is a natural segue into Advent, which picks up these themes from the old Church Year and appropriates them for the new Church year.  We are waiting people, by definition.  It makes sense to end and begin the Church year focusing on this fact.  
Advent traditionally was a penitential season, similar to Lent.  The emphasis was on self-examination, repentance, and the giving up of pleasures to better discipline mind and body to focus on the promised return of our Savior.  Kind of a far cry from the glutton-fest that we’re encouraged to indulge in, isn’t it?  (though actually, there are competing traditions for Advent and Christmas, one a more penitential practice and the other a more celebratory practice, originating in different areas of Christendom and eventually combined.  So a little gluttony may be OK.  That sounds really weird.) The readings for Advent begin with end-of-the-world sorts of themes.  That’s what Advent is to remind us of – we’re waiting not just for the already-happened birth of Jesus, but for his return.  His birth serves an important point in this focus – it reminds us that God fulfilled his promise to his Old Testament people by sending Jesus to the world to save us.  As such, we can trust the promises of God about the return of Jesus to the world in glory.  Christmas is not just a memorial event, it is a guarantee that what we hope for in Jesus’ return is something God can and will fulfill.  We do not wait idly or in vain.
As the Advent season progresses, the emphasis shifts from the end of the world and the Second Coming, to the Nativity.  The Church has traditionally celebrated the birth of our Lord in two phases, mirroring his human and divine nature.  The first celebration is his physical birth – Christmas.  The second celebration and focus is the fact that this was no ordinary baby, but rather the Incarnate Word of God.  Epiphany emphasizes this aspect of Jesus’ two-fold nature.  
Thus, Advent leads us to anticipate not just any birth, and not just any return.  Rather, we celebrate the Word made flesh that came into the world to save us, and we anticipate (as the Old Testament people of God did) his coming.  We anticipate this in light of his first appearance.  
This means that our Advent celebration ought to be deeper and more somber than we traditionally make it.  After all, while there is great and ultimate joy in the Nativity, there is true and genuine pathos with it as well.  The suffering of Mary and Joseph.  The mad envy of Herod.  The death of the children of Bethlehem.  I think it would probably do us a fair bit of good to focus on the fact that the work of God in saving his creation from itself is not without enemies, enemies who will stop at nothing to drive as many people as possible away from the life-saving Word.
I’m considering a mid-week Lenten sermon series on this somber topic.  How is it that we give witness to the once and future King who has come and will come again?  How do we bear witness to that in a culture that wants us to substitute the deep consideration of these things with a bunch of material crap?  Good food for thought, hopefully!
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