We’re bombarded with tradition at this time of the year. As I get older, I think back on the advent traditions of my church. There was a time that I didn’t think my church really dealt with advent. That mostly came out of familiarity – traditions often become so second nature that we don’t even realize they are traditions. It also came out of spiritual immaturity. Christmas was about presents under the tree and the church rituals were just a sideshow. Furthermore, and this still happens, my postmodern mind tends to get frustrated by the tradition battles that take place every year. The fights over which decorations are appropriate in the sanctuary, or the ridiculous “War on Christmas” that a certain cable news station likes to invent. Now, I see greed creep into my five year-old’s mind as he looks through a Christmas Lego magazine. This is frustrating. So, rather than enjoy this time of year, my jaded mind would rather just skip it.
Because of this, I need to remind myself that there are some advent traditions that are good to remember.
Every year, four Sundays before Christmas, the music changed in church. The kids jockeyed for position to be Mary or Joseph in the upcoming play, not just a stoic shepherd or, even worse, a sheep. And each week, a church family was responsible for lighting one more candle in the Advent wreath. Of course, adding a candle each week dramatically increased the odds of lighter malfunctions.
This is probably my biggest advent memory – big brother (who is just old enough to be responsible with fire) is desperately clicking the unresponsive lighter and with an increasing amount of panic, he gives it a bit of a shake before finally making eye contact with dad. Dad is nervously watching, mulling over his options of how to help. Then just as dad is about to move, the lighter miraculously ignites and a soft chuckle rises from the congregation. Big brother redeems himself by getting all the candles lit without also igniting his sleeve. Dad smiles…disaster averted.
This year, though, I’ve been more aware of an advent emphasis on “waiting”. It is an attempt to empathize with the young couple at the center of the Christmas story. This couple wonders what awaits them in Bethlehem – with a new baby set to arrive soon, very soon. No hospital arrangements are ready for them. They don’t even have an open couch arranged. Furthermore, this baby isn’t even Joseph’s.
Today, I’m wondering if this emphasis on waiting is appropriate. There was a time for waiting, yes. The Biblical story, brilliantly, plays this out. As far back as the Genesis story, a promise is given. A promise of redemption, a promise to make things right again. The curse will be knocked back. That is the central theme – and the story is amazing. No matter how bad things get, God is not about to abandon this promise. Noah builds a big boat. Abraham has a son. David becomes king. It’s going to happen.
But God’s people rebel and Babylon creeps nearer. The situation is as bad as it can get. The prophets describe the scene. Their sieged capitol city is in ruins. People are so hungry. There are stories circulating of mothers eating their own starved children. The king, cowardly, fled the city. But he was quickly captured, his sons were murdered, his eyes were cut out, his hands were bound and he was dragged into exile. The temple is a smoldering pile of rocks. God is gone and his people are scattered. They are forced to leave their homes and their farms. The symbol of God’s promise – the “promised” land – is no longer theirs. The prophets long for restoration.
Throughout this longing, though, there weaves a beautiful thread of hope. There are promises of peace and justice (often quite violent justice…but justice). There are promises of deliverance and re-membering the scattered people. There is the promise of a Messiah and rest. There is hope, even, for the land. The “promised” land experiences a Sabbath.
After these promises, however, there is silence…for a few centuries. This is the time to wait.
Finally, the silence breaks. Remember those promises. There is now a new conqueror with a Roman name. Remember that royal line. The people have come back to that same land. Remember that the land rested. There is a new temple and new traditions. Remember the pictures of justice that those prophets painted. The new conqueror wants to keep track of all those people with all those traditions. Remember how God uses nations to write his story. And a poor, pregnant, unmarried couple travels across the country to have a baby in a barn. Remember the Messiah that they wrote about.
The waiting is over. This is what they’ve been waiting for. The rest is history, right? We’ve even made this moment our fulcrum of time. Everything has changed.
Jesus’ kingdom has been established. In it, the hard work of redemption is occurring. This isn’t happening in some far-off place or some future kingdom. God’s redemptive work is happening today. His story continues.
So what are we waiting for?
The Christmas story has happened – remember it, yes. Empathize with that young desperate couple – definitely. But the time for waiting is over.
It’s time to join in.