When I was worshipping at St. Christopher’s, the scene of my first Advent and the cradle where my nascent faith was nourished, I lived according to the seasons of the liturgical calendar. Advent, the season when I discovered my home in the Anglican Communion, became the most fertile season in my spiritual development. And I always had some insight or other to share with my fellow parishioners.
Yesterday was the fourth Sunday in Advent, 2016, a very lean year for me, when insights have been few. The haunting strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as the processional transported me to those days when I keenly felt and experienced this season of contemplation and expectation.
I have decided, therefore, to spend the remaining days of Advent sharing the meditations I wrote during those years on the mountaintop; I have one for each day. I pray these moments of spiritual clarity will speak to you–and to me–and that the remaining days of Advent will ready us for the gift we await.
Stop and think a moment: What comes to your mind when you hear the words “only 27 more shopping days until Christmas”? Your head begins to spin as you contemplate the hectic—even frenzied—pace of those four weeks of shopping, baking, having Christmas portraits made, putting up the tree, addressing cards, wrapping gifts, decorating the house, attending school programs, taking the children to see Santa Claus. Will you have the packages ready to mail to out-of-state relatives? Do you really want to add to the credit card balance? What about the last-minute stocking stuffers? Uh-oh. You almost forgot the Secret Santa gifts for work, didn’t you? And you promised to send cupcakes for the “winter festival” at school.
Now, really STOP and THINK. What comes to your mind when you realize that those 27 shopping days coincide with the season of Advent? The first season in the liturgical year, Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends at the first Eucharist of Christmas. Advent is the time during which we prepare for our ritual remembrance of the incarnation of Jesus at the Nativity and for the fulfillment of his promise to return in power and glory. The lessons for Advent focus on the end time and on God’s promises to the people of Israel and to the church. The liturgical color of the season is purple, which symbolizes royalty: We are preparing for the coming of our King. The lighting of the Advent wreath begins each service during this season—purple candles on the first, second, and fourth Sundays, and a pink candle on the third Sunday, surrounded by a green wreath symbolizing eternity. The white candle in the middle represents the purity of our Lord and will be lighted at Christmas.
Advent is not the season of full shopping carts and empty wallets, of long lines and short tempers brought to mind by the advertisers in their relentless countdown of the remaining shopping days until Christmas. On the contrary, it is a season of quiet contemplation and of inner preparation. We call Advent the season of waiting. I prefer the Spanish word esperar, which combines the English concepts to wait and to hope with the cognate to expect. We Americans are an impatient people. We don’t like waiting, and we have little experience with the inner strengthening value of hope and expectation. What are we waiting for during Advent? What is the nature of our hope? How do we enact our expectation?
Because I grew up in a non-liturgical church, my first experience of Advent was at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Garner, North Carolina, a mere three years ago. In fact, I returned to church after a 23-year absence on the first Sunday of Advent on 1996. I had no intention of worshipping God nor of participating in a life of faith; rather, I came because I believed that church was the proper place to instill moral values in the child God had placed in my care. However, God’s intentions for me, I soon learned, were somewhat broader. I prayed along with four Advent collects and listened to the reading of four sets of Advent lessons. Most profoundly, I heard God’s message for me in four Advent sermons. I remember writing a card in which I described my experience of the season: I clearly understood that I was preparing for Jesus to come to me.
And now? If we have already accepted Jesus, if we already have a personal relationship with him, how do we experience the waiting/hope/expectation of Advent? My brief experience as a Christian tells me that as sinful beings we are never in perfect relationship with Jesus, and we are constantly preparing ourselves to receive him more fully. And, as our Advent lessons and our weekly recitation of the Creed remind us, we are also constantly preparing ourselves for the day when he “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Every Advent we sing the haunting hymn (with 12th-century words and a 15th-century melody) “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” But Emmanuel means God with us. We cry out “O come,” but he is here already. This prototypical Advent hymn expresses perfectly the paradox of Christian hope—not wishful thinking, but the sure knowledge that if we accept Jesus as Lord of our lives, we have a place in his heavenly kingdom.
My prayer is that we will use this blessed season of Advent as the peculiar people we are called to be. We can wait to sing Christmas carols until we burst forth on Christmas Eve with strains of “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Instead of eating happy meals in the car as we rush from store to store, we can have family dinners around the lighted Advent wreath on our dining room table. We can postpone our Christmas parties until we can celebrate the Nativity of our Lord. We can remember that the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 25 and end on January 6, when we celebrate the Epiphany. We can will ourselves away from the frenzy of the season for periods of prayerful self-examination during which we prepare ourselves afresh for the coming of Jesus. As we wait, with hope and expectation, we can sing:
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.
—Charles Wesley (1707-1788)