he night is far gone, the day is near. Be ready. Keep awake. Put aside the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.
These are the words and phrases that characterize this, the first Sunday of Advent. Words of urgency and of warning, challenging those who would follow Jesus to not lose their edge, to not lose hope, to not imagine that the world as we know it is in its final or finished form. This is language that directs our attention to the promise of a culmination of time and history; language that insists that God is not yet finished with this world; language that insists we be both hopeful and patient. “Disciples of Jesus,” writes Stanley Hauerwas, “must learn how to take the time patiently to hope in a world that thinks it has no time for either hope or patience.”
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Advent is the season that calls us to embrace the truth that we live in the time between the times. God has acted decisively in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and God will act decisively to bring the whole of creation to its completion.
But frankly, this isn’t the sort of theme that most people expect during these weeks leading up to Christmas. I think that most people, if they think about Advent at all, assume that it is really little more than a prologue to Christmas, or maybe even just a part of the Christmas season.
I wrote this sermon while sitting in a coffee shop—my second office—already festively decorated for Christmas, with non-stop Christmas music playing over the sound system. Just outside on the boulevard wreaths and lighted trees line the street, and someone just walked by wearing a Santa hat. I wrote this sermon on what has been dubbed Black Friday, in the United States the busiest retail day of the year. And according to CBC radio, Canadians are beginning to grab hold of Black Friday too, with the cross-border shopping ramping way up this weekend.
In other words, everywhere we look these days, we’re being told that it is almost Christmas… “its starting to feel a lot like Christmas”… might as well be Christmas… time to start the month of festivities. You better get your shopping done, you should think about getting those decorations out of storage, maybe we could have the office Christmas party a bit early this year, to avoid the crush of other parties and social obligations that will come.
Everywhere, that is, except here in the church. For at least this hour each Sunday for the next four weeks, we are going to keep to a different rhythm. We’re not going to sing a carol until Christmas Eve, and the symbols we offer up over these weeks will be ones speaking of hope and patience, and of light coming into darkness. A very pregnant Mary—and pregnancy requires both hope and a good deal of patience—and the Advent wreath—with its very clear imagery of the arrival of more and more light; these are the things that speak to us in this time.
And the colour for the season is blue, not red and green or gold and silver. It is a kind of quiet, contemplative and evocative colour, calling us to a place of stillness in the midst of the busyness.
In terms of the cycle of readings, we will more or less back our way toward the nativity story. This week it is those readings calling for wakefulness, as we hear words spoken by a very adult Jesus coming toward the end of his ministry. Next week the gospel will introduce us to the figure on John the Baptist, as he cries out his announcement of the coming of the Christ, and the week after that the gospel will deal with what it cost John to be so bold in his proclamation. It is only on the fourth and final week of Advent that we’ll back right up to the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and hear of the message of promise brought by the angel. But because this year we read from the gospel according to Matthew, even then the focus will be on Joseph’s dilemma, and not on the annunciation to Mary.
It is all designed to slow us down, to breathe and to be, according to a rhythm alternate to that of the wider culture.
So here is the challenge. Take these days of Advent—days that run from today until the sun goes down on Christmas Eve—as a gift. Savour the themes that we will reflect on during these weeks, and take them with you from this place. Hold off on decorating the house for at least a few more weeks, maybe using an Advent wreath instead. Do some devotional reading around these themes, maybe drawing on the resources we’ll be posting and linking on our website. Dare to breathe of different air; the air of expectation, and of patient hope.
Then, when Christmas Eve comes? Begin your celebrations of the great feast of the Incarnation in worship, and then continue to mark those celebrations for the whole 12 days of Christmas that run through to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Maybe even mark the Epiphany, which is the day on which the story of the visit of the magi is commemorated, with a special meal. Do it up right, in other words. These are feast days, after all.
Of course, this cycle of seasons is much older than the modern version of Christmas; a version that has become such an important social and economic phenomena. This cycle of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany was observed for hundreds and hundreds of years before Charles Dickens wrote his famous little story and before Coca-Cola popularized Santa Claus and before Bing Crosby first crooned that he was dreaming of a White Christmas. Not that any of those things are bad, though you do get pretty tired of old Bing by the time the 25th rolls around. But it is so very, very easy to have the whole works get thrown out of whack, leaving us all stressed out by the shopping, exhausted by the level of activity, and rather unfortunately focused on the sentimentality of something called the “Christmas spirit.”
What the ancient cycle of seasons does is give us a way to reframe all of that, and make sure the larger story gets told. And that larger story proclaims not simply that a babe was born in Bethlehem, but that in that birth God has acted decisively for the sake of the world. More, the larger story proclaims that God is acting in our midst and will again act decisively to bring it all to completion.
Which is why we begin this season of the time between the times hearing again the call to be awake, ready, prepared, and open to what God has done and is doing and will do for the sake of the redemption of the world. For the sake of you and me.
Have a blessed and holy Advent season.