Happy New Year!!
We have come to that time when we begin again the cycle of the Christian year, each season and cycle of seasons seeking to spiral us ever deeper into what God calls us to—whole and abundant life for all.
I did not grow up with the practise of marking Advent (or Epiphany, Lent, or the full season of Easter, etc.), which means I never quite knew when Christmas—my favourite Holy Day—started. This was hard on my need for orderliness, even as a child! I embrace Advent now, along with the rest of the seasons. The Christian year brings an order to time, and a sense of identity and purpose marked by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world.
I have noticed some debate recently about whether Advent is to be a penitential season or a joyous one. I think it is more complicated than that. The root of the word Advent is from the Latin adventus, meaning “a coming, approach, arrival.” It tells us that Advent is a season of waiting.
But how to wait? And just what are we waiting for?
The text from Isaiah this coming first Sunday in Advent tells us that Israel has been waiting, in exile, and they are tired of it. There are two small words in this text that really sum it all up. The first is the “O” that begins the passage. It is round and wide and full of woe, like the mouth of the person in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It is uttered by a beleaguered and besieged people whose hard hearts have finally broken. It is a plea that they have had enough.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. ~Isaiah 64:6
This verse reminds me of David in Psalm 51, which we read at the beginning of Lent. Here, though, it is the lament of a whole people. One can almost hear God sigh and whisper, “Finally, something I can work with!” not unlike the parent of a humbled teenager.
From this, it can be seen that our waiting in Advent begins in confession. We confess that we are mired in trouble. It is trouble that we have, individually and corporately, helped to create. And it is trouble that, perhaps more indirectly, we are witness to in the world. In our home, we have shifted to using Advent candles that are coloured in graduated blues because of this Advent reading of Isaiah 64. The first candle is a deep, dark blue; it reminds us of the trouble we are mired in, even when we try to do something right (or, as has been said, perhaps especially when we are about to do something right). It reminds us of our inability to extract ourselves from the trouble. This is at the root of why humans sing the blues.
So, yes, there is a penitential element to the season.
The second small telling word in this text is the “Yet” with which verse 8 begins. As Brueggemann points out, in Hebrew, this hope-filled little word translates as “But now” Yahweh. God’s people are still in relationship with this God, who unlike any other god it is acknowledged, “works for those who wait for him” and “meets those who gladly do right” and remember God’s ways. God is good, and dependable in God’s steadfast love. Finally, Israel accepts the terms that God has given them back in chapter 45:9-10. God is Father and potter, Israel the clay, whose existence and future are God’s to give and form. This understanding of who God is and who we are is also part of our confession on this first Sunday in Advent. The reading from Psalm 80 makes explicit the plea that is our starting and returning point, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
And here is the joy of the season. We have been saved! God has answered this ancient prayer and come down, bringing the dawn of new life for all. God moves towards us. Of course, as Isaiah has already hinted at in 64:3, God’s answer to this prayer was unexpected. God born as a helpless human and condemned to die on a tree, to say nothing of resurrection! I think one of the consistent things about God’s actions is that they are most often unexpected—that could be Yahweh’s middle name.
One of the aspects I love about the Advent season is that it so clearly holds together the past, present, and future. In the present, during Advent, we take the time to anticipate when we mark the birth of Christ, and all that event has already brought to the world God so loves. Also in the present, during Advent, texts such as the ones from I Corinthians and Mark for this Sunday remind us that we wait for the future return of Christ Jesus, in glory, and for the final fulfillment of Creation. We too are caught up in what God is doing in, with, and for the world. That is so exciting!
These texts also tell us the shape of our waiting. We do not wait distracted, or asleep, or in despair. Mark tells us to “Beware, keep alert…what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Wait as a verb means “to watch out, be on one’s guard.” Its Proto-Indo-European root, weg, means “to be strong, to be lively.” Our waiting is to be active, expecting and watching for the presence and work of Christ in the world, gladly doing right and living in God’s self-giving Way, all the while anticipating Christ’s return.
Keep alert…wait for the Lord!