I find myself coming at Advent differently than I ever have before. I have always thought about it as four weeks of "getting ready for Christmas." Advent was decorating, shopping, partying, going to concerts and pageants, and so forth - always a means toward the end of Christmas Day. Now I am wondering just how faithful that is.
Firstly, thinking about Advent that way reduces it to the same level as going to the mall to sit on Santa's lap. It is just one more thing to do between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th. We go shopping; we look at the lights; we do Advent stuff at church; we bake cookies; we go over to the Jones's for egg nog, etc. Lighting that funny horizontal wreath in front of the sanctuary is just something else on the pre-Christmas to-do list.
Secondly, that approach to Advent presumes the absence of Christ, at least temporarily. If we spend these four weeks getting ready for Jesus to arrive, it begs the question, "Where is he now?" Does he sort of slip away just after Christ the King Sunday and show up again at the Christmas Eve service? How do we explain theologically our treatment of this holy season every single year? And are we supposed to, on December the 26th, stop preparing for Jesus to come into our lives? After all, he has arrived now. What next?
And finally, thinking of Advent as mere Christmas prep time does not allow followers of Christ to enter into the spiritual disciplines appropriate to the season, as is frequently done during Lent. You never hear the question, "What are you giving up for Advent?" floating around church hallways. This should be a time of deep spiritual reflection and prayer, purposeful study of the scriptures, and renewed dedication to do what is pleasing in God's sight, "to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."
So this Advent, I am doing more than just get ready for Christmas. I am going to ask myself (and by extension taking my congregation along with me), "What do I expect of God?" Four weeks of Advent, so four expectations: STRENGTH, COMFORT, JUSTICE, and FAITHFULNESS. I intend to dwell here for a while. Each one of these areas is going to be a sermon. (If you would like, you can read transcriptions of my sermons on the website of my remarkable congreation, though we are just a wee bit behind in posting them.) I am calling the series "Unseasonable Expectations."
Furthermore, I think Christians ought to pretty much just live in Advent mode all year round. I mean, are we not supposed to be expecting Christ to show up all the time? The incarnation means that God is always coming, and always present - all at the same time! I like to say that "eternity" not only has no end, it also has no beginning. Saying that God is eternal means that God has always been, is fully now, and is evermore just about to arrive. And that is what Advent is.
Well, that and the four weeks of getting ready for Christmas, too!