A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: WAITING AND WATCHING
Happy New Year! This Sunday marks the beginning of a new year on the Christian calendar, with the first Sunday of Advent. I’m bringing this up for two reasons. First, I figured any excuse to put this most recent year behind us would be a welcome one, so even if you’re someone who has never really cared about the Christian calendar before, this is a powerful new incentive! Second, though, the importance of beginning the Christian year with Advent is striking me, at least, in a new and powerful way this year.
Typically, we tend to treat Advent as something to “get through” on the way to Christmas. Many of us have special calendars to literally count down the days of Advent until we reach Christmas, for example. And, of course, we’re not good at waiting; we want to dive right into Christmas itself with the special decorations and carols and food and so on.
Which is somewhat ironic, because the main theme of the season of Advent is waiting! Not waiting in the sense of waiting in line at the DMV, though; waiting in the sense of actively looking and preparing for the coming of Christ, not simply in the celebration of Christmas, but in what is sometimes called the “Second Coming” of Christ: Christ’s final redemption of the world.
That attention to Christ’s return is definitely something we tend to downplay or ignore. That’s partly because it makes us uncomfortable, given how it is a favorite subject of fire-and-brimstone preachers and those angry guys with pamphlets wearing sandwich boards that say “THE END IS NEAR.” And we also avoid it because, for most of us in most years, we’re at best ambivalent about how good the news really is about this world ending and Christ’s kingdom being fully established.
This year, though, I wonder if it might be different. There are many folks who are jumping straight to Christmas even earlier this year, hungry for anything that feels warm and life-giving after such a gloomy year that has had far too much conflict and loss and death. And the truth is, I don’t begrudge them that for a moment, and if that’s what you need to do to take the best care of yourself right now, go for it.
Yet I also think that truly attending to Advent this year may have a unique and strong impact on us. Most of us have a very new and different perspective on the key themes of Advent: waiting and preparing for our deliverance and restoration and redemption from Christ, for our liberation from the things that seek to separate us from God and one another and threaten our well-being and even our lives.
That new and different perspective has been hard-earned through the experiences of the last 8-9 months, and the season of Advent speaks to it in particularly powerful and meaningful ways. The actual word “advent” means something that is coming but has not arrived or concluded yet.
So the season of Advent doesn’t actually mean “something important is going to happen soon that will change the world; wait and see!” It means, “something important that will change the world is already happening; do you see it?” And that is very good news for us who are longing for what feels like long-delayed deliverance and peace.
So this Advent, I encourage you to double down on observing the Advent season. That doesn’t mean that you need to push Christmas completely away, especially this year. Sure, bake an early and extra-large batch of Christmas cookies and put on the Christmas music around the house. We’re even having a Zoom Christmas Carol Sing for the church on the third Sunday of Advent, December 15!
But also, get an Advent wreath for your home (or at least some Advent candles) and use it for daily prayers or to light on Sundays along with the wreath we will light in worship online. Come to the church and participate in the Advent Spiral Walk, which you can read more about on page three. Join the Longest Night Service online on Wednesday, December 16; this service recognizes that Christmas can be particularly difficult when you are struggling with any form of loss, and provides an opportunity to both name that loss and sadness and to share in a service of comfort and hope.
And wait and watch for signs of Christ’s coming already at work in the world, and embrace the good news of that, as well. Have a blessed and meaningful Advent, everyone.
Grace and peace,