Thursday, November 14, 2013

Advent is coming

Advent is coming: "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood come and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (Matthew 24:36-44)

Beginnings and endings—that’s what we become more aware of and engaged in as the church year winds down, and a new church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent. The gospel pericope from Matthew—which is selected from the first Sunday in Advent—admonishes us to “keep awake” and “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” One of the ways in which the church, in its collective wisdom, deals with such ominous texts and admonitions is by systematizing life into some sort of secure, comfortable order; by inventing meaningful rites and rituals and seasons to try to make sense of life in the face of what might cause folks to live in paralytic fear and chaos.

   Hence the church came up with the season of Advent in about the fourth century. The season’s name is based on the Latin Adventus, meaning, coming or the coming. The season originally was one of prayer, fasting and repentance—that is how the early church dealt with the admonition to “keep awake” and “be ready” for the Son of Man’s unexpected coming. Because of this threefold emphasis on prayer, fasting and repentance, the season was similar to that of Lent, and some even referred to it as “the winter Lent.”  The season also was originally longer than it is today—in Western Christendom it began on November 11, St Martin’s day, and stretched over to the Day of Epiphany, on that day candidates for baptism were baptized. In Eastern Christendom, Advent begins on November 15 and goes right up until December 25, which is forty days. In the Western church year calendar, eventually the First Sunday of Advent was considered the first Sunday of the church year. Eventually the season was shortened to the four weeks before Christmas.

   I think the more sober mood of Advent is also reflected in many of the Advent hymns, which are set in minor keys rather than major. One of the downsides of Advent is the war we clergy often have with worship committees and even parishioners over the selection of hymns for Advent—clergy, in most cases, prefer to sing the Advent hymns, while laity would much rather sing Christmas carols. Laity also seem to want to eclipse the mood and emphasis of waiting, watching, preparing and repenting—one of the perils I think of living in a life in the fast lane, instant society.   

   The Advent wreath—or in some churches log—and Advent calendar traditions originated with German Lutherans—the wreath likely goes back to the time of the Reformation, while the calendar is traced back to the 1800s. The candles on the wreath mark the weeks of Advent. The first candle symbolizes hope; the second one symbolizes peace; the third one symbolizes joy; and the fourth one symbolizes love. All four virtues which we are gifted with thanks to Jesus the coming Messiah.

   The emphasis of the season also has changed with time—the original, sober emphasis on fasting and repentance has fallen out of practice by most Western Christians. Instead the emphasis is now on the three main ways in which Christ comes to us: his first coming in the past as the Incarnate One; his coming to us in the present time through Word and sacrament and the communion of saints; and his so-called second coming sometime in the future.

   However the biblical texts for Advent do have a sombre emphasis in them, and beg the questions: Have you made adequate preparations for the Coming King of kings and Lord of lords? If Christ the Messiah-King were to come at an unexpected time, would you be ready and awake? If someone important comes to our homes, we usually “clean house” and prepare for their coming. Maybe even set out the best silverware, plates, etc., and serve up an extravagant meal. How much more then do we need to “clean the house” of our hearts, minds and lives to prepare to meet Jesus face-to-face when he comes? With all of the secular consumerism of Christmas that seems to come earlier and earlier; with so many pre-Christmas parties to attend; it seems that by the time Christmas arrives most folks have already had enough of Christmas.

   So, as Christians, how about being more intentional in celebrating Advent during Advent rather than Christmas during Advent? Perhaps during this year’s Advent season we might be
Image by Eclecticity: Amen, come Lord Jesus!
willing to consider preparing for our Lord’s coming by going out to serve those in need. Right now, the news is full of stories about the plight of the Filipinos who have lost everything after the death-dealing typhoon there. Might we open up our hearts and wallets to help them out? There are, of course, countless other causes that we can contribute to as well, both here in our city and around the globe. Who knows, in our serving we may very well meet up with the face of Christ himself?!

   Prayer: Stir up your power, O Lord, and come. Protect us by your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins. Have mercy upon and provide for the people in the Philippines, the Syrian refugees, and others who face sufferings of all kinds. We give you thanks for all of the blessings you have bestowed upon us. We especially thank you for your grace; may your Holy Spirit’s presence fill our hearts and minds and lives and give us the direction we need to serve you and your holy purposes; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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