In the procession of the church seasons, Advent comes first, before Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Since all the other seasons very clearly mark out the events of the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection, it is logical that Advent would be construed as the “countdown to Christmas,” in the familiar phraseology of the space age. The marketeers have taken this idea and run away with it, so that commercial Advent with its mostly secular “Advent” calendars and other gimmicks (it’s hard to believe that when my children were little, it was almost impossible to find purple candles) has enabled more Chinese manufacturers to fashion still more paraphernalia for the American “holiday” market.
Well, the church can do something about this, and until recently, the Episcopal Church always has. We seem to be slipping now, with all kinds of carol services in the middle of Advent; even so, however, it’s striking, on the third Sunday of Advent and perhaps even the Fourth, to walk uptown fifteen blocks from Grand Central and observe the interior of the Episcopal churches with their plain unadorned evergreens, contrasted with the brilliant red poinsettias of the other denominations. The Episcopal poinsettias will come out on Christmas Eve and will remain until Twelfth Night. This restraint during Advent, this observance of the true Twelve Days, is a counter-demonstration designed to be a rebuke to commercial Christmas, a refusal to bend to the pressure of quasi-religious sentiment. It points to the dark condition of our present world order and symbolizes our yearning for a definitive word from God. By telling us that God owes us nothing, the season prepares us for the unimaginable grace of the gift of God’s only Son in human flesh. But not in the simple sense of God coming as a baby. We have Christmas for that, twelve whole days of it through January 5.
Advent is meant to be portentous, which is a very different thing from our standard assumptions that everything is going to work out for the best. Who can believe that any more, anyway? In this season of the year 2015, a front-page feature article in the New York Times 12/4/15 tells us of our fears, fears that we never expected to have. (The article is by N. R. Kleinfeld, who wrote the chief feature article for September 12, 2001–first sentence: “It kept getting worse.” First sentences in the recent article: “The killings are happening too often. Bunched too close together. At places you would never imagine.”) There is a profound theological message here. Advent is the very opposite of the “countdown to Christmas,” because it tells us of our status in the world as it is. When Jesus spoke of “the ruler of this world” he meant Sin and Death, also called Satan. We have no right to expect anything from God. Advent requires of us an unblinking assessment of the real situation we find ourselves in.
But that still doesn’t get at the question of what Advent is really about. One of the readings associated with the season is the cry of the prophet Isaiah: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! that the mountains might quake at your presence, as fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil–to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is. 64:1-2) This is not a season of hope for the birth of an infant. Advent, to be as blunt as possible, is the season of the world-overturning Second Coming of Christ.
Am I making this up? Well, take a look at the 40 Advent hymns in the Episcopal hymnal. All but two of them are about the Second Coming. Listen to the words of Charles Wesley’s “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” arguably the greatest of all hymns, if words and tune (by Vaughan Williams) are taken together; it’s a vision of the Last Judgment, with universal implications (who are those people in the second verse? might they be us?). Take a look at the uncompromising figure of John the Baptist, the Advent herald, whose words of alarm have nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but only with his coming as the One who will reverse this world order. Listen to the lessons, how they invoke the Second Coming. Recall the medieval presentation of Advent as the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell–in that order. At Grace Church in New York in 1994, at our well-attended Wednesday night services, we had four Advent sermons in a row on the Four Last Things, in their medieval order. Attendance was robust. Why? who would come to hear a sermon on Hell in the week before Christmas?
Here’s the answer. That particular congregation knew the secret. Behind, before, under, above, and embracing the Advent message of judgment is the first, last, and forever message of God’s prevenient grace. What? Well, “prevenient” is a good in-word for Christians. Every other group has its in-words, why shouldn’t we? Pre-venient is from the Latin, meaning “to go before.” God’s grace is there before his judgment. There will be a judgment upon all that is evil, all that opposes God’s love. That should be good news to us, but only if we understand that judgment will fall on ourselves first (“For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God”–I Peter 4:17).
In the 12/12 Times, an article about the pall of dread that has fallen on our country quotes a college student who thinks Donald Trump is xenophobic, but admits that although we have been conditioned to think that xenophobia is wrong, nevertheless “we all have to safeguard against an inner Trump.” He is wise beyond his years. For the Christian community, Advent is the time for an unflinching look at ourselves as God sees us, full of conflicting impulses and unconscious prejudices. The context makes the difference: we submit to God’s judgment in the context of God’s promise. Our Lord Jesus Christ has promised to redeem the world. We will be saved through judgment; but we will not be saved without judgment. That’s the way to understand the fiery preaching of John the Baptist on the second and third Sundays of the season. I’m still waiting for an Advent calendar that has a picture of John the Baptist in windows 8 and 15…
To read my first post on this subject, click here