We are immersed in Advent now – most American Christians have trees strung with lights, bedecked with baubles and handmade ornaments, and perhaps even an early wrapped present or two hiding beneath the lowest boughs. Advent calendars – with little morsels of chocolate hidden behind paper doors – retell the story of Mary and Joseph as they are beset with angels, and make their way to Bethlehem. And always, we are waiting. Waiting anxiously for the Christ child to be born. Waiting expectantly for God to come near.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is the hymn for Advent. In every church I have ever attended or served, a verse of this hymn was sung each of the Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve. It is a plea – a cry for Jesus to come into our midst. Emmanuel means “God with us” and is a reference to Jesus. We sing that when Emmanuel comes we shall rejoice.
Yet for any person who makes a habit of watching or reading the news, it doesn’t seem like waiting has done us much good. Black men and boys are routinely gunned down in the streets. The American police have become increasingly militarized and seem to use force with impunity. In Australia, a radicalized and mentally unstable Muslim man held 17 people hostage in a siege which ended with the death of 2 young women and the gunman himself. And, in Pakistan, a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar has resulted in the death of 141 people – 132 of them children. In the face of tragedy and violence, should we really spend our Advent waiting?
Our Advent refrain is “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” Or, as I often pray – Come, Lord Jesus. We wait for God to come near, to be born into this messy world of pain and suffering. For God’s own self to feel the ache, the sting and hurt of what it is to be human. Advent is waiting for the birth of Christ into this world of racial inequality, radicalized violence, and senseless suffering. And yet, we do not wait passively in this season of pregnant expectation. We do not sit idly by.
Any expectant parent knows that the nine months of waiting are not passive. They are full of work: readying the nursery, going to doctor’s visits, taking Lamaze classes, reading every page and line of parenting literature, and generally preparing your heart and mind for a new human life that is set to change everything. Advent invites us not to wait as the powerless or apathetic. Advent invites us to wait hopefully – actively participating in readying this world for the birth of Christ.
We prepare for the birth of Christ by living in ways that change the world, and shape it to be more like the Beloved Community God desires for us. We wait for Emmanuel by feeding the hungry, by clothing the naked, by setting the captive free. We prepare our hearts and minds for Christ to be born anew in us by seeing the world as it is: broken, captive, and needing to be set free of the systems which hurt and oppress us. We wait – anxiously, expectantly – for God to be Incarnate among us and laboring alongside us.
Advent, then, is not about refraining from participation in all things. We must refrain from skipping ahead in the story. We must practice delayed gratification and patience. We must take Sabbath from the distractions and diversions that clutter our days and cloud our thoughts. But, we do not practice idleness. We do not practice seclusion.
Advent is a season of waiting for God to come near – to be born into the world and into our hearts. As Christians, we do not wait for the world to change; instead we anticipate the ways God will work through us to change the world.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Rejoice! For God is with us. Rejoice! For into this suffering, chaotic world God is born. Rejoice! For we do not labor for peace, for healing, and for reconciliation alone. We are joined by Christ – Emmanuel – God with us.
Image “communality advent wreath” Copyright Geoff Maddock. Used by permission under creative commons license.