Greg and I traveled to New England this past week, to join some of the young adults for Thanksgiving. We visited in two states, played with dogs and little ones, and noticed that the next generation has succeeded in taking over the tradition of managing the dinner. We contributed a dessert that we could prepare in advance. We navigated some complex conversations about football, and current events, and family dynamics. And we celebrated the blessing of connection. It was good. And now we are back to regular life!
After the turkey, and shopping, and football, and perhaps the visits with family – are you awake and ready for the Day of the Lord? This has nothing to do with getting the holiday shopping done, finishing decorations, planning for parties, or finishing up the end-of-year stuff at work. This is all about our preparing for a wondrous encounter with God, in real time. Welcome to Advent.
It is difficult to trace the history of the season of Advent. Churches in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25, possibly as early as the 3rd century (cf Hippolytus of Rome), and Advent was fairly well-established by the end of the 4th century (mentioned by Council of Saragossa). What better season to mark the arrival of the light of Christ in western Europe than the days after the winter solstice? In a culture dominated by monastic practices, Advent was decidedly ascetical. Sixth century Celtic monks spent the 40 days before Christmas by fasting and praying. The 40 day Fast of the Nativity is still observed in some Orthodox communities. Yet in the later middle ages, even the churches in Rome observed the fast only from the Feast of St Andrew (30 Nov) until Christmas Eve. Since the modern period, Advent in western churches has been observed over four Sundays prior to December 25.
Advent is not Lent. In Lent we embrace an extended reflection on death – the death of Jesus and also our own – and Christians often embrace practices of fasting, giving alms, and doing penance for sin. In Advent, we reflect on our anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Christians can do this on at least three levels, reflecting on the birth of Jesus the Christ in Bethlehem (coming to visit us in great humility); the return of Christ at the end of time (at the unexpected hour); and the welcome we may give to Christ in our hearts.
As St Paul told the members of the nascent church in Rome, it is a good time to wake from our slumber of spiritual complacency. I do not say that as a harsh critique but as a patient observation of the state of Christianity in the USA. No one is burning our churches or shooting at us as we approach worship (unlike Pakistan and Nigeria). There is no civil penalty for practicing our faith (unlike Saudi Arabia). It is pretty easy to be a nominal Christian here, and to get swept up in cultural Christmas (holly, jolly, ho-ho-ho).
As part of my personal preparation for Advent, I began reading a book recommended by one of our young adult members, named Honest Advent. The author wants to rekindle the sense of wonder we can experience when we reflect on what God may be doing all around us, in the context of our struggle in post-pandemic disorder and a regularly contentious world. Today’s passage is taken from the conclusion of Jesus’ final sermon in GMatthew, in which he describes the chaos and difficulty that will threaten his followers as they await the final fulfillment of the reign of God in the world. Contemporary rapture theology, which has little or no scriptural support, may offer comfort for those who seek certainty or presume to have secured the inside track to heaven, but the focus of this passage really is on remaining vigilant through the uncertainty of a long wait amidst discouraging circumstances.
In fact, an honest Advent may be a very welcome break from the long list of tasks we usually compile during this season. Honest Advent is an excellent way for us to get real about a spiritual life. If we are able to consider ourselves embodied souls, it becomes obvious that we are spiritual people. Jesus invites us to watch for the coming of Messiah, not only as an Advent exercise but as our regular state of mind. Where can we perceive the hand of God moving in the world? The Holy One is subtle, coming in a whisper and the breeze. The healing we seek, the love for which we long, the peace we need, will come to us. As we wait, let us also watch. Prepare to be filled with wonder.
The Roman Anglican Blog.
Stanley Saunders. “Commentary on Matthew 24.36-44.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-matthew-2436-44-6