~ Advent Isn’t Just for Christmas ~
The First Coming of Christ is celebrated as Christmas. Historically, those waiting for it were gripped in a complex emotional matrix of joyful anticipation, impatience, hope it would be in their lifetimes, worry if it would come at all, prayerful thanks and prayerful pleading.
During the twenty four or so days before Christmas, many Christians recreate this time of waiting and preparation by liturgical celebration and prayerful observations. It is a time of joyful anticipation since we are looking back to prophecy fulfilled and redemption given. We are reunited with and abiding in the Trinity, knowing and growing in “the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
However, so many of us are living personal advents. Like the ancients of the first Advent, we are seized by an emotional mix that places great demands upon our faith. Abraham was a man of great faith, yet even he faltered in the strain of waiting for the promised advent of his son. Mary’s advent in waiting for the pregnancy and gestation of the Christ in her virgin womb was an exercise of wondrous faith, punctuated by social, cultural, and physical challenges. “Real-time” advents are difficult, challenging, painful and faith-demanding.
Any mother can attest to this during the 9 month advent of the birth of a child from her. So can the unemployed making a full time job of finding a job, hoping today will be the day of its coming; the farmer for his harvest; the family for news of a loved one away at war; the critically injured for good news of hopeful recovery.
Whatever the visible circumstance, these are advents of the Christ, for “all things are held together in Him.” Jesus taught us how when we tend to the needy and sick, visit prisoners, dress and feed the poor, we do it all to Him. This is a literal mystery and marvel, not a symbolic act. Like on the road to Emmaus looking like a traveler uninformed of the big news of the past days or in the burial grounds on His resurrection morning looking like He could be the gardener, Christ communes with us in our loved ones, our children, employers, doctors, friends and even those people about whom we thanked God we are not like, the despicable ones the Pharisee was thanking God he was not like, to Jesus’ contempt.
We, as individual Christians, are defined by the Body of Christ, by community. Before God instituted this Church, the bride of Christ, in response to the falling away of His people, He instituted the family. The family remained the center of religious life and celebration throughout Jewish history, not the temple. It isn’t His will that families are torn apart by evil intrusions, divorce, “human justice,” war or contention.
At the age of thirty, the age when a Jewish man could assume spiritual leadership for his community, Jesus began a whirlwind ministry of redemption, traveling frequently, always “camping,” tending to the masses of people in needs of all imaginable kinds, doing the work of the Father, the most loving and critical in all time and beyond time. Yet His mother was never far. Before that, as the first born of the family, He was culturally and legally responsible for the family should something happen to the head of household, the father. He could have chosen to support the family by “supernatural” means, or with a high paying job as a scribe. Instead, He chose to continue Joseph’s trade as a construction worker. (The Greek word for this has customarily been translated as “carpenter” which unfortunately conveys a more idyllic, relaxed job of craftmanship.) While Jesus’ torn body hung agonizingly on the cross above His mother’s anguished gaze, doing the redemptive work for all people of all time, Jesus still paused to fulfill His earthly obligation to Mary, transferring her care to John, the only apostle there.
Suffering together is a difficult trial. Suffering alone is worse. Knowing a loved one is suffering and being unable to be together for it is the worst. Jesus understands the need for loved ones to be in communion physically. During His passion and agony before His arrest and final work in a human body, Christ was, as always, the Word through Whom all things were created, the Lord of all. Yet, in His humanity, this Incarnation of the Supreme Being, asked three of His flawed and fumbling apostles to “keep watch” with Him. He wanted no more than His beloved human friends to just be near Him. Unfortunately, to Jesus’ added pain, they kept falling asleep on Him. Jesus understands the need and responsibility of human relationships more than we can touch in the depths of our imagination.
Of this Timothy wrote (1 Timothy 5:8, NIV): “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” But how can we do this, God’s will, when persecution, personal quests for power and control, intrusive evil, unforgiveness, or war of various kinds keep us separated?
We can’t, not anymore than the ancients could hasten the First Coming or we could the Second. But let us take consolation in that this is the will of God and we are summoned to pray, in unwavering faith, that it will “be done on earth as it is done in heaven.”
This holy hope, trusting in faith, sustained by love, the greatest attracting power in the universe and beyond, gives our advent its true meaning. Advents, cosmic and personal ones, are not about waiting or even waiting and praying. It is a transforming preparation, one that involves sanctification and suffering.
In the advent of Christ’s ministry, God’s call changed from the “rejoice!” of Christmas day to “repent and prepare the way for the Lord!” John the baptizer was God’s herald for this advent. John’s message was our unworthiness (“I am not worthy to even untie His sandals”) and true repentance, which is always painful as we lament over the sins that harden us to God’s love and union. This was followed by a cleansing of baptism, the baptism of John, with water. John announced the One to follow him will baptize with fire and Spirit.
So during our many personal advents, we must prepare ourselves, in the same way for the arrival of Christ in a new baby, a renewed relationship, or a reunion with that or those whose spirits live in our hearts. In a “real” sense, this arrival is that of Christ Himself, in another one of His many reflections, contributing to the “fullness of God” in us.
The end of the advent should find us much more Christlike, much more conformed to His image, than when the advent began. If not, we will be called poor keepers or stewards of transformation, suffering, sacrifice and preparation. We will have fretted away our advents by only waiting through them or surviving them. The coming will still be joyful, but Christ will find us as we were before, and that is sadness.
Our advents are difficult, trying, painful, anticipatory, preparatory and very blessed. That’s why they are worth celebrating, even after they are over and Christ in yet a new face has arrived. Christ rhetorically asked, “Will the Son of Man find any faith when He returns?” Let’s delight in pleasing our Beloved in our many encounters with Him in this life of earthly exile. In His earthly exile, Jesus was astounded by the faith of a gentile Roman military officer during his personal advent of his servant’s recovery from illness. Let us do likewise in each of our advents.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © February 15, 2003
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