Every family, tribe, and culture in Christendom has its own ways of celebrating Advent, most of which have deep historical roots. Many of these have been lost and forgotten in our passage toward a post-Christian society, and there is certainly no standard way to go about this in any multi-cultural setting. So there are a number of things to take into account as we think how to celebrate Advent, and how to pass down our faith to a new generation.
Invitation to waiting
As with any celebration or tradition, Advent invites us into a story, one about releasing our own goals of self-fulfillment and embracing God’s future for the world and for us. It is the story of the people of Israel, waiting in anticipation and hopes that God would end the long night of oppression and disobedience, and rescue them to be his free people again.
In one sense, the wait is over and God carried it out in an entirely unexpected way. Instead of putting down Roman oppression and fixing the disobedience of his covenant people by doing away with the known world, God entered into the story of humanity in order to recreate the world from within. He even entered into our story the way each of us enters into the human story: by starting life as a little baby, Jesus of Nazareth, and by growing up and facing all the daily struggles that you and I face. In so doing, God gave a gigantic “YES!” to human life, and to all of creation.
During his life Jesus showed us a radically new way of being human, one which is characterized by faith, hope, and love. In the end, he became the long-awaited King of God’s people by being executed in our place and by rising again in an entirely new, though completely real human body.
How Long, O Lord?
Now, almost two thousand years later, we can look back and see the many ways that God has already begun to remake his world. Modern medicine, hospitals, fire departments, governments which are oriented toward the welfare of the many and not simply the treasury of the select few dictators: these are just a few of the blessings rooted in the faithful work of God’s people embodying the work of the Kingdom here and now.
Yet, at the same time, we have a gnawing awareness that sin still lingers, that our lives are still not filled with the freedom God promised from time immemorial, that we still decay and die and rest in our graves, generation after generation. In another very real sense, we are in almost the same place as the Jews who lived in the years prior to the birth of Jesus: we have no idea when he will come; only promises that it will certainly happen.
As we retell the story of Jesus’ birth, his ministry, and his death and resurrection and ascension, we find our own lives caught up in the middle of it, somewhere before the final chapters of God’s story, when Jesus will return and put all things right. Life’s challenges sometimes cause us to question our resolve, and we often forget that we are waiting for anything at all. So we find a need to be reminded again and again of our hope, and a need to create new ways of remembrance for the years that are to come.
The Inversion of Hope
The need for Advent traditions has perhaps never been more urgent than it is today. From the very night of Thanksgiving to the Morning of Christmas, we are invited to forget the hope of Advent by almost everything we see and hear in stores, on TV, when we go online, and when we turn on the radio. Instead, these mediums collude to drag into us into a form of consumerism so decadent that it annually results in Black Friday brawls, and in sobbing children who did not get what they wanted for Christmas.
We are invited to make regular shopping sprees, to understand the meaning of Christmas in terms of cheap, sentimental music, and to consume more and more until the holiday is only truly a holiday only for those who are privileged enough not to work in the service industry. It is now the case in our own country that thousands of working people are not allowed to sleep on the night after our “Thankful feast” because so many of us demand to have them awake in the middle of the night so we can go shopping. Black Friday gluttony is the opposite of Advent.
In these embattled days, what are we to do?
I frankly haven’t figured it out yet, but when I read in the prophets about people enslaving their brothers and sisters for their own gain and turning their backs on them, it cuts me to the core. Any suggestions are welcome.
(Editor's Note: Part 2 will be arriving next week, with resources & ideas for celebration of the Advent season)