1. ‘Always winter, never Christmas.’ One of the things I appreciate most about the Advent season is the ability it has to unsettle my comfortable acceptance of the way things are. Whether you are prepared for it or not – indeed whether you like it or not – Advent arrives, and refuses admittance to the mere sentimentality and mercantilism of the festive season. Advent drags our attention to the past, yet at the same time does not allow our sight to remain there, but sets our eyes towards the future. The seeming contradiction of Advent teaches us that we live in disjointed times, where the reality of things is incongruous with the present systems of the world. For those who live by faith rather than sight, we are awaiting the day when the world of this day gives way to a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.
2. The hope for righteousness to make its (his) home among us is the promise of Christmas Day. The meekness and humility of the manger in no way obfuscates the reality that in one particular child dwelt the fullness of God. However, where the first coming was wrapped in swaddling clothes, the second coming will be wrapped in glory and light as Christ comes in power and majesty to lay bare the secret thoughts of our hearts as he judges the quick and dead. In setting the world to rights, Christ Jesus, the very personification of righteousness, will come at last to dwell with us. Such apocalyptic visions lay claim to our imaginations; how else could we live as though history will one day rhyme with justice? That our now and not yet will one day align.
3. As a season of preparation and waiting, Advent’s program for reading Scripture and prayer discloses the follies of my own lusty heart. Restless and unsated, I find my loves and desires unaligned from true rest and satisfaction. Our Advent preparation calls upon a reorientating our hearts in anticipation of Christ’s reordering of the world. Whilst all our work without love is worth nothing, Advent, like the entire liturgical calendar, calls us towards perfectly loving God, leaving aside our worthless works and instead use our bodies, heart, and soul, in worship. ‘You called and cried out loud O Lord, and shattered my deafness. Radiant and resplendent, you put to flight to my blindness.’ For to rightly live is to rightly love – and be loved.
4. We moved homes at the beginning of Advent. Amidst the cleaning and the boxes, the habits and practices we’ve developed over the past few years have kicked into gear around the household, helping our Advent devotion to remain uncluttered by the move. But what has surprised me most this year has been the smells of Advent. I forgot what it was like to arrive home to be greeted by a wreath hanging on the door, and the sweet fragrance of of flowers and leaves. It is an enthralling aroma, filling not only the senses but the stairwell of our apartment. Alas that these perfumes are also an aroma of death, as the flowers, the leaves, the wreath itself withers and fades. The search for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come is never far away at Advent.
5. Move past the wreath though, and inside you’ll find a Christmas tree – our first real Christmas tree. Not that our previous plastics trees weren’t real; yet they were the verisimilitude of Christmas trees. One of our favourite seasonal poems is Eliot’s ‘On the Cultivation of Christmas Trees‘. Our tree is, for all intents and purposes, uncultivated. It is a wild brute of a tree, trimmed but untamed, with branches and trunks running whither they please. Yet this spindly wood, with one limb here and another there, resembles the members of the forest bringing their hands together in a resounding clap at the coming of the Lord. For Eliot the tree is an occasion for wonder, of amazement without pretext. To be awoken by the peculiar and exciting smell of our tree recalls to my mind the entwined fate of the world and my body. Fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy not at their annihilation or replacement but their transformation and perfection. My body will rise from the earth, and the earth itself shall be changed, for the Son of God has come to the world which he has made so that we might be renewed after his likeness.
6. In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son. The day is almost here, salvation is close to hand. The redemption of time lies at the heart of many Advent practices, as we mark the days until Christmas, ever vigilant for the coming of the Son of Man: wreaths and candles, calendars and trees, all trace the progression of not merely time across the season but the dawning of a great light amidst the darkness. This past week I have found myself each night praying the ‘O Antiphons’. These ancient prayers, (mostly known to us now in the Advent carol par excellence of our generation, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel‘), forbid counting down to Christmas for its own sake. Instead, they invite us to consider the origins of our own impatience, making use of the time by exploring the nature of our desires. The ‘O Antiphons’ speak of an urgent longing; a longing which is addressed to Christ as a safe harbour for all kinds of holy desires rarely encountered in this world: wisdom, justice, peace, enlightenment, freedom, and unfailing companionship. The fleeting nature of such necessities fuels the Advent craving: Maranatha!
7. While the O Antiphons capture Scripture’s penultimate prayer, ‘Come!’, we dare not forget that Christ’s first coming was the fulfilment of Israel’s longing amidst the pain and grief of exile. This story too must be rehearsed and learnt again in anticipation of celebrating the feast. For Israel’s grief and longing is the story of a creation which finds itself estranged and exiled from the God who made it. In finding this wider story played out in the story of one people, the celebration of the Son’s journey into the far country is a celebration for all people. Israel’s consolation becomes our consolation, as our fears, our grief, our pain is met in the one who sheds light into all darkness.
8. Where Advent pulls our imagination and yearning in two directions, the season drives us towards the marvel of the incarnation, where the past and the future are ‘conquered and reconciled’, where God’s only begotten took on flesh, and became human, so that humanity might become like him. If the beginning reminds us of the end, and the first coming of the second coming, Advent’s focus on the new world naturally leads into the celebration of Christ’s birth. It was there that the new world was given birth in the coming of Emmanuel, and it is for his coming again, when God shall dwell among us forever, that we now look.
9. Let us therefore, celebrate the feast, not for its own sake, but as a foretaste of the perfection of all things when God will be all in all. Let us rejoice in the givenness of things, of creation not set aside to decay, but that dirt and earth was taken into the Godhead itself (for of such stuff are humans made). Let us rejoice in giving and receiving. At the conclusion of another Advent, which begins a new year but calls to mind a new world, let us rejoice in God’s prodigality, and respond with adoration, thankfulness, and hope: ‘This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.’