Advent is a season of waiting. I have used that definition often. But to a certain extent, it falls short of being a full explanation. The question has to emerge: waiting for what? If we’re unaware of what we are awaiting, we might miss it when it arrives. And we might still not be clear what “it” is.
Waiting for God?
We who confess that the reign of God has come already in the person of Jesus (Mark 1:15), know that our waiting is active. The reach of God’s realm has already arrived. Yet, it is not a coercive reign, forcing compliance and mandating justice. It is a reign in which love and free will describe God’s actions. It is clear, that the justice and the peace promised at Christ’s coming, may have begun in a small way, but it has not yet become a defining characteristic of our shared human existence.
We are not waiting for God, God’s reign and realm, or even Jesus. What else might we be waiting for during Advent, then?
Adventus and Futurum
Latin always has the dual nature of making things sound really smart, and unapproachable. I like Latin because it makes me look more intelligent. These are the words we use for our concepts of advent and future. Each a key concept when talking about the hope of the world in Jesus, and in Jesus completion of the work begun. So we wait. Our waiting isn’t worthless, the kingdom of God as first described by Jesus continues to inform our actions during the waiting. Our waiting isn’t like pointlessly sitting at a bus stop.
A few years ago, I was preparing an Advent retreat for a group of church leaders. I jumped into the work of Jurgen Moltmann, The Future of Creation, after reading Mark Love’s thoughts about the future and hope. Mark writes,
Jurgen Moltmann distinguishes between two pictures of the future. The first he calls futurum, which is the outcome we expect because of the way things are now. The future is a story of progress. In other words, the future is only the natural outcome of the way things already are. Adventus, on the other hand, is not simply the outworking of the past and present into the future, but the surprising proposal that an altogether different future is breaking into the present. Futurum perpetuates the status quo and tends to conserve the relationships of power that currently exist. Adventus turns the powers upside down and offers real hope for those who have been excluded. It is a future made possible by the stirring of the Spirit of God. Mary sang of adventus, of the possibility of a different future for those of “low estate,” including herself.
The future, or futurum, is predictable. It is more or less calculable. Like forecasting. The end result will be the culmination what has gone on before. When it comes to awaiting the emergence of the subject of our waiting, there’s a not a lot of surprise. We’ve seen it coming for a while. We understand its speed and trajectory and manner. This works great in farming. While we might await the seedlings to sprout, it isn’t an enormous surprise when they do. That’s what we were anticipating. But if the kernels of wheat sprouted a field of large wooden rabbits (as in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail), we would not have seen that coming – ever.
The wooden rabbit would be adventus. Advent is a surprise, that for which we’ve awaited shows up, but in such a discontinuous form, we easily miss it. This unexpected outcome is as the heart of the gospel. As Luke tells the story of Jesus, this unexpected beginning is established early on as the thesis in his gospel and echoed throughout.
And Luke echoes the themes of Mary’s song with Jesus’ first sermon:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).
This is advent, a reveal, an unexpected turn. Something new.
The third Latin word, novum. It’s a fancier way to refer to new stuff. Somehow, “new stuff” just doesn’t have the same kind of intellectual heft.
It’s a good word, though. In his writing, the mystic theologian of the 13th century, Meister Eckhart promises his written work to be “nova et rara”, or, “new and rare.” Rare because some things are so limited by what has come before (futurum), that they are merely derivative. But Eckhart sees something else. Something new. For Eckhart, this might even be imperative, for Eckhart sees novum as God’s means of interaction with creation. Meister Eckhart writes, “omne opus dei est novum” (every work of God is new). God is thus ever creating. Whether God is playing a game, thinking about something, or doing anything, it is new, thus creative. Whenever God thinks, God creates. Discontinuous emerging is always happening. Showing up in unexpected places and in unimaginable ways (Flasch, Meister Eckhart: Philosopher of Christianity).
That’s All God Does
God does “new” things. That’s all God does. Often, we are so programmed by the practices of futurum that even as God does new things, we don’t see it; we just see what we expect to see. Maybe its because of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, confirmation bias, or some other way of thinking that affects our ability to really see God at work. We continue to see the known and the previously experienced, but we miss the new. Especially the unique and uncategorizable.
Advent, Future, and New
As we await the new things God is bringing to us, I find myself growing skeptical of what I already assume. I can grow tentative in my assurances in my claims. But the themes setup by Mary and Jesus remain. There is not a speculative and abstract theology espoused by Mary and Jesus. Rather is the opposite; it is made concrete in Jesus’ example, of how power is reversed, poor are given dignity, oppressed find freedom, the broken are healed. Advent waiting is active and compassionate, anticipating God’s surprise.