A Sober Advent

Advent is traditionally a season of contemplation. Although the celebrative spirit of incarnation and resurrection are central to Christian faith, each liturgical season has a mood reflected in its lectionary readings as well as its spiritual practices. We are resurrection and incarnation people, but God's transformative acts occur in contemplation as well as action and in struggle as well as triumph. Accordingly, preachers would do well to look at the Advent season as a whole as well as the lectionary readings, assigned for each week. Looking at the lectionary readings in a holistic manner and experiencing the mood of each season enables preachers to more fully live the seasons of the Christian year.

Experiencing the mood of a particular season enlivens the preacher's personal spirituality and deepens her or his sermons; it also enables the congregation to see each week's scriptures in terms of the larger perspective of God's presence in the Advent adventure and throughout history. (To achieve this, I advise pastors to take a mini-retreat, perhaps for an afternoon, to live with the four weeks of Advent through the practices of silence, holy reading or lectio divina, and self and congregational examination.)

Regardless of the actual date of Jesus' birth, it is appropriate that, in the Northern hemisphere, Advent occurs as the days grow shorter. In its contrasts, Advent reflects a wintry spirit. Advent is filled with hope, but it is hope that is hard fought and subtle in its contrasts of knowing and not-knowing, light and darkness, awareness and sobriety, peace and alienation, and safety and threat.

Advent invites the pastor and his or her congregants to stay awake and be mindful of God's presence in our lives. Amid the busyness of the Christmas season, pastors and congregants can easily go from one event to another without truly experiencing what's going on in their lives. Like Lent, Advent calls us to wake up and to remain sober amid the drunkenness -- literally and figuratively -- of the pre-Christmas rush. Self-awareness or mindfulness does not mean being a "scrooge" or turning our backs on the Christmas spirit. In fact, awareness enables us to live creatively in the tension between "the baby is born, so let's celebrate" and "stay awake to the coming of Christ in our time and place." With all the busyness of life in the holiday season, Advent is a day to day call to mindfulness -- to an "examen" or "examination of conscience" in which we note the quality of our relationship to God as reflected in our daily lives and pastoral leadership.

Advent is concerned with temporality, kairos moments of call and transformation, amid the regular movements of chronos, day to day clock time. Four decades ago, the band Chicago asked, "Does anyone know what time it is? Does anyone care?" Advent invites us to awareness of the time in which we live. It is always later than we think -- God is near and with that comes as sense of peace and security, but so is the threat of destruction through human foolishness and waywardness. While God will outlast human and ecological threat, awareness of God's timing is the source of wisdom and courage in responding to the real threats and opportunities occurring in chronos time.

Advent is the season of faithful agnosticism. On the hand, we are inspired by the peaceable realm, described by the prophet Isaiah. We imagine a world in which the swords are beaten into plowshares; natural enemies live in peace; all humankind will have knowledge of God; and a child will usher in a new age. On the other hand, we experience the dissonance between our hopes of shalom and the stark realities of poverty, the shrinking middle class, the rise of racism, and global climate change. 

This Advent agnosticism also touches our understanding of God's presence in the world. The scriptures affirm that God is near -- as near as breathing and the next moment. This is the day of salvation and healing promised by prophets, and it is right here among us. But the Advent scriptures also remind us that "no one knows" the day of fulfillment (Mt. 24:36) and that this is a day of judgment as well as consolation; but, in the meantime, we wait patiently for the visitation of the God.

Advent's apophatic vision balances the kataphatic spirituality of Christmas. Advent reminds us, in the spirit of the apophatic or imageless tradition in theology, that nothing fully describes God nor can we assume to understand God's vision or movements in history except from our very limited standpoint. This complements, and contrasts with the Christmas kataphatic affirmation that God is present in a little baby, in a humble family, and every moment of our lives.

All this is good news for the preacher. It allows the preacher to celebrate Christmas throughout December while holding onto the reserve of Advent. It invites the preacher and her or his congregation to pause awhile amid the Christmas rush to reflect on what's really going on in our lives and in the world. We might even hold off on singing Christmas carols in worship through Advent, or at least until the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Advent asks us, "Are we too caught up in the busyness of the Christmas season even in the church? What signs of God's presence are we missing in the mad rush of the holidays and our daily lives?"

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