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Looking back and forward: Advent’s significance of hope



Why not extend the season of preparation?

By David Gambrell | Presbyterians Today

Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Think about the first and last words of Scripture. The book of Genesis opens with “In the beginning …” (Gen. 1:1). And the book of Revelation closes with “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20), followed only by a postscript extending Christ’s grace to all the saints. The season of Advent brings together both ends of the Bible.

On the one hand, we may think of Advent as a beginning — the start of the new liturgical year, a fresh opportunity to immerse ourselves in the great story of our salvation through Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. On the other hand, Advent points to an ending — the consummation of all things when Christ will return in glory to bring righteousness, justice and peace. How does the season of Advent balance at this threshold of time?

It all depends on the double significance of Advent as “coming” or “arrival.” We begin the season of Advent with our eyes on the horizon: watching and waiting for Christ’s coming again. The texts of the Revised Common Lectionary support this theme with visions of the prophets about the coming day of the Lord, letters from the apostles about the imminent return of the Lord Jesus, and teachings from Jesus himself about the unexpected hour of judgment.

As the weeks of Advent progress and the candles burn more brightly, the focus of Advent shifts to another arrival. We prepare to celebrate the light that has already come into the world at the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, our Emmanuel. The lectionary readings lead us to Bethlehem, where the message of the apostles draws its first breath and the hope of the prophets is finally fulfilled.

It is vital that we hold both meanings of Advent together. We believe that God is with us in Jesus. A new day has already dawned. This is the year of the Lord’s favor. The time of salvation is now. This is indeed a cause for celebration, good news of great joy for all. But we also believe that Christ will come again. Creation is still crying out for redemption. Captives are still struggling for freedom. Communities are still yearning for peace. And these are reasons for vigilance and renewed discipleship, hard work and fervent prayer. The season of Advent teaches us to live in this tension.

Advent is an annual refresher course on the nature of Christian hope. We look back across the long arc of history to understand and remember who God is and how God works in the world — mighty and merciful; ever-faithful and abounding in love; creating, redeeming, sustaining all that is. We look forward, too, straining to see the new thing God is doing — a river flowing in the desert, a fresh shoot growing from an old stump, weapons of war turned into instruments of peace. Thus, we learn to proclaim the gospel with confidence, trusting that the Spirit will work wonders, the promises of God will come to pass, and Jesus will continue to lead the way.

This Christian hope has a countercultural dimension. It requires a faith in that which is not yet seen — and the patience of the saints in the meantime. It resists easy answers and instant gratification. It rewards the poor and powerless and rebukes the privileged and proud.

Especially in the cultural and commercial season of Christmas, the spirit of Advent seems to strike a discordant tone — like hearing “Jingle Bells” in a minor key. Indeed, it is difficult for congregations to sustain “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” while “Here Comes Santa Claus” is spilling out of the nearby mall.

Fortunately, the design of the lectionary allows worship planners to get a head start on Advent in the final three weeks of the Christian year, after All Saints’ Day, which is observed on Nov. 1. An emphasis on the promise of God’s new Creation and the future coming of the Lord gives us an opportunity to testify to the hope that is in us before the countdown of shopping days until Christmas begins. This feature of the lectionary is a remnant of earlier church traditions that observed a six- or seven-week season of Advent, a practice well worth reconsidering in our own time.

As we “prepare the way of the Lord,” may these ancient patterns of the Christian year reform and transform us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live out our faith in Jesus — the Alpha and Omega.

David Gambrell is associate for worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology & Worship and co-editor, with Kimberly Bracken Long, of the 2018 Book of Common Worship.

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