“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).
The Bible concludes with this great historic cliffhanger. The first time Jesus came to this world he ensured us he’d come again to finish what he started. We are left on Scripture’s last page with two basic claims about the course of history and the fate of this world: Christ has come. Christ will come again. We are, at present, between the times. History has taken the shape of a promise and faith has taken the shape of waiting.
That’s what Advent is about. It is about waiting for Christ to come again. We practice that by waiting for Christmas Day. This begins the Christian Year. Today, the first day of Advent, is the Christian Calendar’s New Year’s Day. Christians don’t tell time like anyone else tells time. We believe Jesus Christ is sovereign over history and so time revolves around him. The Christian Calendar is thus organized around the story of Jesus, so as we relive his story year after year we don’t forget the story to which we belong.
This was God’s idea in the first place. Israel was commanded by Law to tell time according to salvation history (Lev. 23). They organized their year around the story of their salvation from slavery, beginning with Passover and continuing with a total of seven annual festivals through which the people of God, in effect, reenacted their history—from the Exodus through the Wilderness and into the Promise Land. These festivals were not empty traditions. They were social education. They reminded the people who God is and where they were apart from him. This taught them to not depart from him. Reliving the story ensured they would remain in it. (For an extended explanation of the liturgical calendars of Israel and the Church, click here.)
Entering into the story of Jesus doesn’t begin with Jesus but by waiting for him, as Israel waited for him, so the Christian Calendar doesn’t begin with Christmas Day but with Advent. It begins not with an arrival but anticipation. Christmas without Advent is like an answer without a question, water without thirst, forgiveness without sin, Christ without Israel. So the Church Calendar begins with a season of waiting for Christmas Day to come like Israel waited for that first Christmas Day. Israel waited for that Day like their life depended on on it, like all history depended on it, like without it they would be lost, like without it the world would be lost. They were right. But it’s hard for us to wait like that.
Jesus once said, “Be like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes” (Lk. 12).
Waiting is hard work. Jesus described it here as the kind of work that allows us to hear. Like children with ears pressed against the bedroom door on Saturday morning waiting for mom and dad to get out of bed, it’s a kind of quiet anticipation. It’s called listening. The blessing in Jesus’ parable comes to those whose waiting was proved simply by opening the door—they could heard the knock from the other side. This kind of listening is hard work because our kind of world is hard of hearing and full of noise.
We live loud lives: wake up, screen on, eat and run, text and drive, bounce around, fast food, back home, screen back on, plate on lap, back to bed, earbuds in, wake up; rinse and repeat. We have one-click shopping. Pay phones have gone the way of the dodo. The Internet doesn’t make that intergalactic fax machine noise anymore. Now, it could be that all this on-demand efficiency is evidence of a culture that has discovered all that satisfies the longings of the soul—and made it all extremely available. Or it could be just the opposite. It could be an indication that we have found exactly nothing that satisfies our longings. It could be an indication that we’ve just resorted to an abundance of stuff that does not satisfy.
We are occupied and preoccupied with stuff that keeps us busy enough to never have to confront the hollowness we discover in the silence. Perhaps we’re afraid to press our ear against the door and do the work of listening, because the first thing we hear when we listen is precisely nothing. And when that is what we hear, we have to wonder if it is because nothing is there on the other side. We have to wonder whether God is dead or we are dying. And this makes us anxious. So we fill our lives with things do, places to go, a world to produce, a world to consume, a world to possess. And so in our efforts to consume an abundance of satisfaction we are consumed by an abundance of distraction–anything to avoid listening to the silence.
But shouldn’t the Church, of all people, have a different response to the silence? Shouldn’t the silence of Good Friday shape our longings more than racket of Black Friday?
The slaves in the parable who opened the door did so because they heard the knock, but the reason they heard the knock is that they were “waiting for their master to return.” It’s no surprise that the secular world celebrates our Christmas but wants nothing to do with our Advent. Whatever else we might think Christmas is about, Advent assumes it is about one thing: waiting for our master to return. Indeed, Christmas is only worth celebrating because Christmas is coming again.
This means that the one thing Advent happens to be about involves the two things our culture knows nothing about: having a master and having to wait. But that is surely because our culture, with which we are all too often complicit, has given up waiting on the things we long for most deeply. Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to listen to the grandiose size of our most basic longings—for universal peace, for boundless joy, for belonging across all tribes, tongues, and nations, for the reunion of all lost sons and daughters, for wholeness of a broken world and every broken heart, our longing for that all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience for we know not what—perhaps if we would listen to these basic longings we would begin to understand that we do not have the raw materials within ourselves to satisfy our most basic longings. And neither does the whole world and all that is in it. And when we can recognize that, we will have no choice but to wait. In that case, blessed will we be when our Master finds us ready to greet him at the door.
And that is indeed why we need Advent as much as we need Christmas—without the waiting, the listening, of Advent, we may never hear Christmas arrive.
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.