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November 29, 2010

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If you’ve been around Sojourn long, or even if you’re familiar with our music, you know that we’re all in for Advent. Unfortunately, a lot of evangelical churches aren’t. This means that Christians have no idea what to make of Advent, or why it’s necessary.

If this describes you, then I hope you’ll read Timothy Paul Jones’ excellent article, below.  Timothy is a Sojourn member who happens to hold a PhD, and to be Associate Professor of Discipleship and Family Ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s also Editor of The Journal of Family Ministry.

Celebrating the Waiting: Why Advent Still Matters, by Timothy Paul Jones

Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from a Latin term that means “toward the coming.” The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the fourth century A.D., Christians fasted during this season and ended their fast with celebrations of the arrival of the wise men or the baptism of Jesus.

For many Christians, the most familiar sign of Advent is the lighting of candles—two purple, followed by one pink and another purple—during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Advent has fallen on hard times, though. In the Protestant and free-church traditions, the loss is understandable, though no less lamentable; we Protestants are, after all, quite suspicious of anything with origins in church tradition. When I instituted Advent celebrations as a pastor in a Baptist congregation, I was asked more times than I care to recall, “Don’t Catholics do that?”—as if that automatically prohibited us from even considering such a practice.

Yet, even in congregations that echo more ancient liturgies, the meaning of Advent seems in danger of being misplaced. By the closing week of November, any sense of Advent waiting has already been eclipsed by the crèche in the lobby, the tannenbaum in the hall and the list of Christmas parties in the church newsletter.

The Awkward Intrusion of Advent

Why this loss of Advent as a distinct season of the Christian year? Perhaps it’s because, for believers no less than non-believers, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards redeem us from waiting on a paycheck to make our purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with Advent, that awkward season of waiting.  And so, before the last Halloween costume has been returned to the warehouse, halls and malls are decked with plastic holly and crimson ribbons. Thanksgiving provides us with a pre-Christmas test run on basting turkeys and tolerating relatives—but the primary function of Thanksgiving seems to be to supply a convenient time gather for Black Friday.

Why this Advent-free leap from All Hallow’s Eve to Christmas Eve? Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be re-construed to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.

In a religious milieu that has fixated itself on using Jesus to provide seekers with their most profitable lives here and now, Advent is an awkward intrusion. Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.

Even on this side of Good Friday and the resurrection of Jesus, there is brokenness in our world that no cart full of Black Friday bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of pumpkin custard can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch. “The whole creation,” St. Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.” In Advent, Christians embrace this groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that is already being prepared. In Advent, believers proclaim that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come.

Finding the Meaning in the Waiting

I am not contending that lighting a few pink and purple candles will somehow, in and of themselves, trigger a renaissance of patience or a yearning for the presence of Christ. Neither am I suggesting that everyone should dismantle their yuletide trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But I know that I need this yearly reminder of the meaningfulness of waiting—and I do not believe that I am alone. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news of God through his return in glory. Left to myself, I turn too quickly from the God of the Gospel and bow to the gods of efficiency—false gods that proclaim waiting a waste, a “killing of time.” Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent waiting. Advent is a proclamation of the Gospel through the discipline of waiting.

When I recall that there is meaning even in times of waiting, the question that occupies my mind as I stand in line at the supermarket is not whether I’ve chosen the quickest line but how I might invest this waiting in something weightier than my own agenda. When I sit in traffic, I am not merely anticipating a shift of color from red to green; I am awaiting the coming of Christ, and there is meaning in this waiting. When I walk hand-in-hand with a dawdling child who stands in awe of common robins and random twigs, there is every reason to join this child in worship, for there is holiness in her waiting. Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent teaches us to get the message that God speaks even in the waiting.

Bobby Gilles is Deacon of Community Life & operations for Sojourn New Albany, co-author of “Our Home Is Like A Little Church” and many worship songs. Listen to all his songs & read the blog he shares with his wife, worship leader Kristen Gilles, at http://mysonginthenight.com