By Loren Crow
For liturgical Christians, the season of Advent is the beginning of the Church year. We start the year in expectation. At one level, Advent is the season in which we look forward to Christmas, with lots of readings from the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s coming. It’s an annual re-enactment of the sacred story of God’s reaching down and saving us when we could not save ourselves.
But preparation for Christmas is not all there is to it. Because our culture is so caught up with preparation for Christmas (and has been since October!), it’s natural enough for Christians to mirror the general culture and turn Advent into merely a time of pre-Christmas shopping and celebrations. But there’s another very important theme of Advent that is too easily forgotten in all the Christmas-preparation hype: the expectation of Christ’s return.
Talking about the return of Christ as judge and ruler seems like an unnatural act at this time of year. It seems not to fit well with the serene little baby lying in a manger who, based on the songs we all sing about Him, wouldn’t hurt a fly. But there it is; the same Jesus about whom the angels sang “peace on earth” is the Jesus who “shall come to be our judge.” The truth is that without Advent’s reminder of Christ’s role as judge, this season would quickly devolve into a sappy, sentimental parody of the Gospel.
There is a “now and not yet” character to the Christian Gospel that shouldn’t be ignored, and that permeates every aspect of our faith. God has freed us from our sins, from death and hell; but we are still sinful creatures who must undergo death before that freedom is fully realized. Jesus’ death and resurrection has wrought resurrection in His creation, yet the resurrection power is not yet fully manifested in the world. Jesus has entered the world as God’s Messiah, but He has not yet come in glory to bring His Messianic role to its fullness. He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.
But that time is not yet, at least not from our perspective. In the meantime, we live in this world as citizens of another higher world that is coming. This stance of expectation, a looking-forward to God’s completion of His work, is what the season of Advent is about. It is a time of honest reflection and penitence, of anticipation of the just judgment that Christ is bringing. It is a time of prayer for the completion of God’s saving work in us, in our neighbors, and in all the nations.
If we enter fully into Advent, into the “now and not yet” character of the Christian life that Advent re-presents to us, then when Christmas comes we’ll be able to sing honestly the last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem:
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.