Advent is a curious season in the Christian year. Perhaps before the identification of Christmas and consumerism, the Advent season inspired Christians to reflection, confession, and preparation. Beginning in the fourth century, Advent – like Lent –was seen as a time of fasting and penitence. Although Christmas parties and “hanging of the greens” potlucks keep many of us from fasting during Advent these days, the season is definitely a time of restlessness and reflection for those who take the season seriously.
Advent reveals the ambiguity of Christian hope and history. The Christ whose birthday we soon celebrate has died and risen, but how will Christ come again? How will Christ be revealed in the ongoing historical adventure? Advent calls us to look both at the coming of Jesus, the child in the manger inspired to be God’s saving presence to humankind, and the Second Coming of Jesus, anticipated as the fulfillment of history. Two extreme approaches are unhelpful in understanding Advent:
- The attempt to discern the Second Coming by trying to calculate the signs of the times or create a chronological timeline for Jesus’ return. Indeed, I will go further and assert that focusing on a literal, believer-saving, earth-destroying Second Coming, even if we abandon any attempt to calculate this event, is unhelpful for Christian faith and practice. Our place, right now, is here on earth, as God’s partners in cherishing and healing this world and this life, and not some futuristic realm.
- The denial of the importance of spiritual restlessness in the life of faith by quickly going from Thanksgiving to Christmas, without committing ourselves to times of contemplation and reflection. While we can sing a few Christmas carols during the Advent season to awaken us to the joy of Jesus’ birth, denying the ambiguities of history and the incompleteness of our own lives leaves our spirituality ungrounded and unrelated to the concrete realities of day to day life in all of its wonder and challenge.
Healthy spirituality lives between radical acceptance of life as it is and a holy restlessness, inspired by what could be in God’s realm of shalom. Advent challenges us to live with the tension of “this is God’s world, filled with wonder and beauty” and “why are we aren’t we there yet? Why haven’t we reached the promised land, the beloved community of wholeness and healing?” We have to start where we are in a God-filled, imperfect universe; but we cannot end our journey in accepting injustice, oppression, inequality, and disease. Advent inspires a prophetic unrest that challenges our current achievements as well as our obvious failures in light of God’s realm of possibility, beauty, and wonder.
How shall we practice Advent? We know that we neither can nor should ban Christmas carols, parties, and celebrations. But, we need not be so caught up in the merriment of the season that we fail to examine our own lives, congregations, and political systems. Advent suggests a different type of spiritual practice in which feelings of peace do not lead to contentment with the way things are. The stillness of meditation inspires us to listen for the voice of possibility within our lives and communities. As an examination of conscience, we need to ask ourselves, “What is our deep restlessness? What unrealized dreams of community and spiritual growth still lure us forward? Where are we complicit in the injustice and suffering of the world?”
While we may not fast in the traditional sense of the word, Advent challenges us to a spiritual fast, a fast of holy mindfulness in which we attend to our values and behaviors. Can we celebrate Christmas with joy and generosity without being caught up in consumerism? Can we experience liberation from hurry and busyness during the “Christmas season” (that is, Advent)? Can we pause long enough to hear God’s voice and attend to God’s vision for our lives and our role as God’s partners in healing the earth? Can we give joyful gifts to loved ones and children without spending beyond our means, encouraging violence and greed, and succumbing to the temptation of useless and ecologically destructive purchases? This is a tall order, but it is the fast that Advent calls us.
So, let us sing a few Christmas carols – even in church – for there is no need for liturgical fundamentalism. Let us rejoice in the wonders of a God-filled universe. Let us embrace the exuberance of incarnation. But, let us equally embrace the divine restlessness that calls us to expect more from ourselves as we seek to be fitting companions of the one whose birth and future presence we await.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty-one books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Adult Study,and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached for lectures, retreats, and seminars at email@example.com.