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The Coming

Today is the first of the four Sundays in Advent, the beginning of the Christian year and the start also of a season in which many Christians will try to prepare themselves for the great feast to come.

For many of us, that sense of preparation has dwindled down into buying presents, planning meals, making travel plans and somehow trying to trick ourselves into the holiday spirit when we will suddenly feel festive and full of good cheer.

There’s actually nothing wrong with most of that, and there are lots worse things to do with our money and time than buying gifts we think will please those we love and making plans to visit our dear ones. But Advent is about something bigger: about the coming of God into the world and although nothing we could ever do would fully prepare us for that, the goal of this season in the Christian life is to help us understand just a little bit more what it means to welcome God into the world as a baby.

As a kid I could never understand why Advent was a season of fasting and solemnity in the church rather than a time of feasting and dancing. What better way to prepare for a really big celebration than to have a lot of little celebrations as you approach it?  What better way to get into the mood?

That’s pretty much the way the world treats what is generally called in mixed company “the holiday season.” December is a round of office parties and other events where, with festive music playing in the background, we eat and drink far more than we should and anticipate Christmas even if we aren’t doing much to prepare for it. Frankly I’m enough of an old curmudgeon now to wish we still followed the old custom of doing the celebrating and the partying in the twelve days of Christmas up through January 6; the first week of January, with the holiday fading behind us and the cold, dark winter stretching endlessly ahead, is probably the single week in the year when we would all benefit most from some wassail and cheer. Let’s hope that one benefit of migration from Spanish speaking America will be a revival of the great twelfth day feast celebrated there as Three Kings’ Day, a bright candle lit in a dark time of year.

But as I’ve reflected on the holiday over the years, I think I see more reason for making Advent a season of restraint and reflection rather than anticipatory fun. We can never really understand Christmas unless we understand how much we need that baby in the manger. Advent is a time to think about the ways that life without God is an empty husk.

Unfortunately in times like these, feeling bleak is an easy thing for a lot of people to do. Times have been tough since 2007; a lot of people have lost homes and jobs and a lot of us are having a harder time in the world than we expected back during the boom. For a lot of people today, life without God doesn’t even offer much tinsel. It’s a bleak, bleak world for all whose lives have fallen short of their hopes — the promotions missed, jobs lost, marriages broken, families severed, and so many other sorrows and setbacks.

And this life, even when it’s going well, doesn’t last. I remember Christopher Hitchens saying once that we were all like mudballs, catapulted up into the air and sailing along very nicely, but that one day all of us, sooner or later, will hit something and go splat. Advent is a time to remember that it will all end and end in a splat. There are those who think that we should try not to think about depressing subjects like that, but in fact the ability to face the prospect of life’s end with some dignity and courage is part of what makes the rest of life rich and worth living.

For Christians, and nobody else really has much business thinking about Advent or observing it, there is something else. If there is no Christmas, there is no Cross, no answer to the problems of sin, separation, failure and pain. Advent is a time to think about what life would be like if we didn’t have faith in a Redeemer, a Savior who was ready, willing and able to complete the broken arc of our lives, forgive what is past and walk with us step by step to help us build something better in the time that is left.

Advent is a time to remember that we need something more than what we can summon with our own resources to make our lives work. It’s a time to remember how lost we would be if Someone hadn’t come to find us. People in Twelve Step programs think back to what things were like before they found new friends, new fellowship and a program to help them back to life. They talk about “keeping it green,” remembering what life was like without the sudden surprise, the grace that changed everything and put us on another path. The preparation for Christmas begins by reflecting on what kind of world this would be, and what kind of lives we would have, if Christmas had never come.

There are worse ways to start your preparation for Christmas than by using this prayer from the old Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

One of my favorite Advent hymns has always been the Veni, Veni Emmanuel, known to English speakers as O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The first verse in particular captures some of the sense of exile and hopelessness that we would feel if Christmas had never come.

You can listen to it here: the words are below.

Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel
Translated: John Neal, 1818-66

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!


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