I used to think so. I was probably a little too literal with the idea of Advent preparing for Christmas, as though Christmas hadn't happened yet, and we were going to spoil it by celebrating too early. But I've come to see that there's a sense in which all the “merry Christmas” wishes, baking, card mailing, gift buying, and partying can all be part of preparing for Christmas. I'm not quite ready, though, to dispense with the Advent season and its pared-down signs and expectant language full of “keep awake” and “prepare” and “save us” and “mercy." In fact, of the four Advent movements in the liturgy every year, "watch," "prepare," "rejoice," and "yes," I think we're only good at "rejoice," and usually for the wrong reasons, because we leave people out.
I'm certainly not ready to forgo the great Advent word, the word built into the name of Advent itself: “Veni” or in our own tongue, “Come.” Because we know, through all the commerce, the parties, and the One Direction Christmas Spectaculars, however much we think the Christmas deed is done and Jesus has come and gone and it's all ancient history, that something's still not quite right. God may be with us, but not, it seems, all the way. Or is he? If Christ is among us, can things be as fractured, violent, and joyless, even in the church, as they seem to be?
We see a world in need of peace. We are aware of kidnappings, drone strikes, and beheadings. We need to be saved by someone with a strategy for peace other than violence and retribution. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.
We see a world fractured by divisions, a world of closed borders and bitter acrimony in the very places where compromise and cooperation ought to mark our discourse. We need to be saved by someone with a strategy other than separation, armament, and argument. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”
We live in a society that glorifies competition, that deifies winners, grooms entertainment idols and sports champions. We need to be saved by someone who can give us relationships that are not adversarial, that build people up and care for the weak. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”
However comfortable we try to be, however good our economic and physical defenses are, we know something's wrong. The only escape path from fear, we think, is escalation: higher walls, better weapons, more prisons. But that is a circular path, in fact, a downward spiral paved with loss and anguish. We need to be saved from that road to a hell that we ourselves have designed. We sing, “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”
Advent says, “You can’t shop and party your way out of unhappiness and fear. Oblivion isn’t a cure; it’s a delusion.” Advent says, “Not so fast with the celebration. Look at what's going on around you. Face the sign of the times.” Advent says, “The patient God has a plan for you in Christ, and it requires your participation. Are you all in? Not yet. Not by a long shot. But there is some good news. Something good has already started. Look for the signs of God’s strategy, listen for God’s invitation, and turn around. Cooperate, surrender, opt in, and God will see it to completion.”
And so we begin to share Mark’s story of Jesus. We should sit up and take notice, because there's something here for this broken, sick, divided, adversarial world of ours. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The beginning of the gospel? What will happen next?
That will depend, somehow, on how we spend Advent. Watch. Prepare. Rejoice. Say yes. “Come to us, O Emmanuel.”