Advent dates back to the mid-sixth century. By the 13th century, the whole church recognized the four Sundays leading up to Christmas as a period of preparation for Christ’s coming. If Christmas is a birthday party for Jesus, then Advent is a time to ponder what that birth means—and the fact that Christ changes everything.
This pondering is both a past tense and future tense occupation. It is past tense, because Advent is a time to remember the prophetic promises that came true when God sent His Son into the world. We reflect on the odd and sometimes overlooked prophecies that spoke of God coming to set things right—like Isaiah 61, which finds its fulfillment in Jesus, when he reads it in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-21), and which serves as the mission statement of his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom or the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . .” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
But, our pondering of how Jesus changes everything is not just directed to the past; it looks forward as well, to an even bigger change, when Christ returns to judge the world and put it to rights, when his resurrection work of the cross is completed in the full establishment of a new heaven and a new earth. Regarding this hope, he tells us,
“. . . keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:35-36)
As God kept His promises to send a Messianic descendent of David to rule forever (2 Samuel 7:1-16 [esp. verses 11b-16], Isaiah 42:1-4, Micah 5:2-5, & Matthew 1:1), so too will God keep his promise of a new heaven and a new earth, where we will experience the fullness of His Messiah’s reign.
Advent, then, is a time of both looking backward and forward—where our hope for God’s future goodness and justice is fueled by memories of how His past promises have been kept. It’s a time of waiting, but it’s not the bored waiting we experience standing in line at the bank or the grocery store. It’s not the dread-full waiting we do in a dentist’s office as we wait for a root canal. This is an entirely different kind of waiting, or at least it should be: It’s the kind of waiting we do at a stadium as we wait for the kick-off of post-season game in which our team is playing, or when we wait for our favorite band to come on stage, or when we wait for the birth of a grandchild. A new heaven and earth is coming! Watch out for it!
Advent waiting is warm-hearted waiting in a cold season. It is a waiting that is shot through with hope. for we know what’s coming, and though the Winter Solstice of day-to-day life may be cold, dark and depressing and it seems like night is endless, the baby in the manger reminds us that God’s future awaits, and that it’s already started: The light shines piercingly bright if you have eyes to see it, like the moon shines on a cloudless, mid-winter night. The darkness cannot overcome it, as John’s Gospel tells us. .
Because of this light, no matter how dark life may get, “all things proceed to joyful consummation,” as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote. Or, in the words of another poet, Wendell Berry, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.”
No matter how dark it might be, the light shines still in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it God hasn’t left you alone in whatever darkness in which you may find yourself.