Now that we have passed the midpoint in the journey of Advent, it’s helpful to remember that Advent is an unfamiliar word for many in our world and in our evolving American culture. It’s a “churchy” word, like Lent or salvation or sanctification. A word like Advent, as many words, has a context inside and outside the Church. Aside from the Church and any theological meaning, advent simply means the arrival of a notable person, thing or event.
Historians talk about the advent of the printing press or the advent of television. Whatever arrives, if the word advent is used, it is a notable thing. A thing that changes everything else around it, like automobiles or gunpowder or air travel. When an advent-level arrival is involved, something in the world shifts because a new thing is happening. Everything, and everyone, is different because of varied advents throughout history. This is the meaning of advent, with or without the church and all the meanings we ascribe to the word.
Inside the church, Advent is the first season of the Christian church year, leading up to Christmas and including the four preceding Sundays. I didn’t grow up in churches that talked a lot about Advent. Perhaps in the very conservative Southern Baptist churches of my upbringing, Advent was dismissed as “a Catholic thing.” Of course, the same could be said of the writings of Augustine or Theresa of Avila, of the Apostles’ Creed or even of stained glass.
“Advent not only refers to the first coming of Christ, but to his second coming and return.”
Thankfully, I have more sense now, and realize the value, significance and beauty not only of Augustine and Theresa, the Apostles’ Creed and stained glass, but also of this strange thing called Advent. There is indeed value, significance and beauty in the rhythm of the Church year starting with Advent. At this time of year, when our world is thinking about the year ending, the Church is thinking about new beginnings and the birth of a Savior. In this sense, the new beginning of God comes before every other new beginning.
In Christian theology, Advent not only refers to the first coming of Christ, but to his second coming and return. When we sit in Advent, not getting caught up in the secular holiday season, we are called to not only look back on that first arrival of God on earth in Bethlehem, but to look forward to God’s arriving at any moment.
Moderate and progressive Baptists often shy away from eschatology. I know a number of pastors who can never see themselves or their church doing a study or sermon series on Revelation, or the second coming. Do all of the damaging theologies from fundamentalism (dispensationalism, Left Behind, John Hagee, etc.) really keep us from proclaiming one of the most glorious beliefs of the faith – that Christ will indeed return and make all things new?
If God broke into the world today, how would it happen? God has a way of showing up in strange places, like an unexpected guest for dinner, or in the fiery furnace of a tyrant king set on self-aggrandizement and building a loyalty cult around his own wealth and opulence. God shows up in a small town whose significance has long since been forgotten. God shows up on a road to Emmaus to walk with disciples in grief and despair.
“God has a way of showing up in strange places.”
The hope of Advent is that God is still breaking into our world in unexpected places and ways, and that Christ might return in all his fullness and glory. Away with the phony limits we set on when and where and among whom God may show up unannounced.
When God arrives on the scene, everything changes. In her beautiful and inspiring collection of Advent and Christmas poems, Ann Weems captures this notion.
Our God will be where God will be
with no constraints,
Our God lives where God lives,
and destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop
Our God will be born where God will be born,
but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us.
When God is ready
God will come
even to a godforsaken place
like a stable in Bethlehem.
In Advent, we celebrate the most notable arrival in history. The arrival that changes everything. The arrival that makes all things new, even before we have a chance to make things new ourselves. In Advent, we wait and we watch for His arrival. In the words of Weems,
for you know not when
Watch, that you may be found
So, we watch.
Related Advent commentary:
David Jordan | This Advent let’s reclaim the power of prophecy
Molly Marshall | The dim hope of Advent