Several years ago, a fellow pastor sighed in resignation as we talked about the approach of Advent, a pastor’s workload equivalent to an accountant’s tax season. “I don’t like preaching through Christmas,” he said.
He struggled with finding anything new in the “too familiar” scriptures, stories and traditions. In addition to this difficulty, we commiserated about the increased time pressures of the season, with school, church, work events, family gatherings, shopping and travel all bundled up with the tendency for pastoral care crises to increase over the holidays.
I feel the sense of resignation and dread when the Advent season starts too, but mainly as it applies to the secular experience of shopping, decorating and rushing around. The worship experience and preaching through the season have somehow always been fresh and enriching each year, even though—and maybe because—the scriptures are so familiar.
Each year, the experience of life is different in the world and in our individual lives. The familiar verses sound different in the changed context of each year and help us to understand anew, to find our place in God’s world and rekindle a renewed sense of hope and purpose.
Examples of this “new every year” experience come easily to mind. Our first Christmas as parents was full of joy as we experienced a gift unlike any other we had ever received. At the same time, caring for our son attuned our hearts in a visceral way to the struggles that poor and displaced parents and children must face every day. We could imagine Mary and Joseph trying to cope with all the “firsts” as they rested in the straw, far away from the advice and help of their own moms.
In 2001, the world felt particularly dark and scary after the tragic events of 9/11. That was an Advent in which the longing for light and hope was poignant and absolutely palpable in worship. Humanity’s failings and our desperate need for God’s intervention sharpened our longing for a new direction to be born into our lives.
There have been a number of Advent seasons where death and birth have been juxtaposed in our church family. There is mourning and loss, but it is tempered and understandable in a beautiful way. The affirmation of life, a hoped-for better future, and the moving of the seasons feel natural and God-given. The stories of Simeon and Anna and baby Jesus in Luke 2 sing to my soul at these times of contrasting emotion, of both loss and gain.
Last year, I was captivated by the idea of who today’s “shepherds” might be. To whom would the angels first give the good news if Jesus were to be born this Christmas? I thought of the taxi drivers and hospital workers on duty on the holiday nights, tending to those who are wandering or lost or in crisis, who cannot be at home. I think Jesus might just be announced to them first.
In this issue’s feature article on page 4, Stuart Scadron-Wattles examines the passive and active voices of Advent and how they speak differently than the secular voice of Christmas glitz does. He encounters the season of waiting, not with images of sparkly snow and pretty packages, but with desert-dry symbolism. To enter Advent, he writes, “we must become acquainted with this desert.”
In our western culture, Christmas is the ultimate escapism, as we hope for fun through the fleeting oblivion of sentimentality and overwrought sensation. For the church, the Advent season is about facing what is real. It is about looking at the state of the world and fully acknowledging our desperate and deep thirst for God. Once this is acknowledged, the active voice of Advent calls us to be part of the needed change. Advent calls God’s people to look to God’s incarnation for direction.
Scadron-Wattles challenges us to live in expectation and to be ready to receive the revelation of God. “We have to be able to handle both active and passive voices by preparing our hearts actively and being ready to receive the ‘gift’ in its own time and way,” he writes.
Worship times during Advent should invite us to step aside from the tiring “same old same old” of every frantic Christmas season. Each Sunday morning is a small opportunity to sit in the Advent desert, away from the jingling pressure, to acknowledge what is real in life, including all the joys, fears and losses. These are times we can passively wait for God to speak into today and listen for familiar scriptures to come alive with this year’s special relevance. Into the desert, God gives a word of hope. We are invited to listen for it and to actively use that hope to move forward in a new year of living into God’s kingdom.
--Posted Nov. 19, 2014