Today is the first day of Advent and the Christmas “countdown” has officially begun. This is normally when I start my Christmas routine. I pop on the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album, get out the decorations, start my shopping and embrace the general merriment of the season. Last year, I even attempted to bake Christmas cookies for the first time (yes, I am working on my baking skills to round out the stereotype of being a Priest’s wife).
In an Advent blog last year, I wrote about the favourite Anglican tradition of Advent wreath making to the tune of Otis Redding’s White Christmas. I also wrote about my realization that the season isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas, it’s also about anticipating Christ’s arrival.
This year, I found myself rummaging through Andrew’s stack of books, wanting to dig a little deeper into that idea.
If you know Andrew, then you know he reads a lot. Like, a lot. In fact, the alternate title of this blog is “Inspiration from Andrew’s Bookcase.” And from that overstuffed case, I picked up a brand new book called Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest and acclaimed author and preacher who Andrew greatly admires.
In the book, Rutledge explains that the cheerful co-opting of Advent by commercial Christmas risks deflating the season’s true meaning. Advent, she says, doesn’t begin with calendar chocolates and carols. It begins with a world overcome by darkness, where evil exists and suffering is real. During Advent, Christians stand in that darkness, waiting in hope for redemption, to be fulfilled by Christ’s coming again. We don’t wait for Christ to be born. That already happened. We are hopeful because of Christ’s birth, and wait for his coming again in the future.
She explains that, in the church calendar, the Advent season is unique in that it speaks into our future.
“The other seasons in the church calendar follow the events in the historical life of Christ — his incarnation (Christmas), the manifestation to the Gentiles (Epiphany), his ministry and preaching (the season after Epiphany), his path to crucifixion (Lent), his passion and death (Holy Week), the resurrection (Easter), the return to the Father’s right hand (Ascension), and the descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) — with Trinity Sunday to round it off doctrinally. Advent, however, differs from the other seasons in that it looks beyond history altogether and awaits Jesus Christ’s coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
For me, Advent has always been a time of festive dress-up, of cheerfully re-enacting things that have already happened. As a former trumpet player, how many times have I acted out the part of the Angel Gabriel in the church nativity play?
What I realized this year is that if Advent is also about the future arrival of Christ, then the season has real implications for our present. We are in a state of waiting right now. Maybe this should have been obvious to me, but I never thought of it like this before.
Rutledge reminds me that Advent isn’t about re-enacting what’s past as part of a pageant. It’s about my life every day. The season of Advent may only span four weeks in the church calendar, but symbolically it represents our present time — the time in between Christ’s ascension and his coming again. We are the real characters living in the cosmic drama.
Today’s Collect (prayer) at our chuch was this:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility, that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. (Emphasis added).
If you’re like me, maybe the idea of Advent as a present season is difficult to digest. It’s so much easier to keep Christ in the past, in the nativity play, than to truly believe he will come again. In that way, Advent places real demands on our faith. It asks us to actively wait and expect. Not just theoretically, but actually. It asks us not to be distracted by all the trimmings of Christmastime but to face and endure the darkness of our world by standing in the light of hope.
That’s some powerful and eye-opening stuff.
So this year, instead of sharing a Christmas classic from the Love Actually soundtrack, I will share an Advent tune from my beloved Sufjan Stevens. Lyrics are below.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
2 O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain
3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain
5 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain
6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain
7 O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain
The Living Church interviewed Fleming Rutledge about Advent a few weeks ago. You can read that interview here.
Or, you can watch Rutledge speak about Advent in her own words in this video from the Parish of Calvary and St. George’s in New York City.
P.s. My latest attempt at baking cookies for the Advent Wreath Making party today. As you can see… I don’t live up to the stereotypes…