The hope and darkness of Advent
Christmas is coming, but it is not yet.
Commercially, of course, this year's Christmas season is already long in the tooth. But if you are a Christian in a tradition which keeps the full Western liturgical calendar (and not all traditions do), it has yet to begin. Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas Day, the season of preparation for Christmas, for re-enacting the anticipation of God's rescue of humanity that starts with the birth of Jesus. It is a time of expectation rather than fulfillment, of longing rather than joy. It is the season for waiting.
Coming to this as we do, two millennia after the fact, it is difficult — for me, anyway — to feel this wait as real. I can't pretend I don't know the end of the story. I've heard its spoilers my whole life. And I am not by nature sentimental: The Christmas tree in our home is a concession to my marriage, not something I'd bother with on my own. (Among my earliest memories is when, at 3, I took my mother up on her threat to cancel Christmas if I continued to refuse to dress for the Christmas Eve service — and considered it a fair bargain.) But while I struggle to share in the Advent wait for Christ's first coming, I have no such difficulty participating in its dual anticipation of his return. And the yearning that entails is a yearning I think we all share, whether or not you're a Christian in an Advent tradition, or even a Christian at all.
It is, most basically, a yearning for justice. I don't mean the unsatisfactory justice we habitually encounter, the justice of courts and cops and prison. I don't mean anything so empty as retribution, which as the subject of yearning nearly always takes the uglier form of revenge.
The justice Christians hope for in the return of Jesus is far more than that. It is no sterile terror, no cruel machine that gnaws the innocent and guilty alike. It is the sense — more than that, the reality — that all is as it should be. It is as small as a perfect dinner with loved ones and as grand as the greatest wrongs of history coming under divine judgment, their victims finally, fully made whole. It is God dwelling among his people on a renewed Earth, where "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." It is the redemption of everything, not only humanity, as "creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God."
It is an end to war and terrorism and abuse, yes, but also to the suffering of animals and the disfigurement of our planet. It is the realization of our hope that darkness will be broken by light, that death, evil, and oppression will not have the final word.
It may be tempting, when reading this, to say, "Well, that's all very nice, and naturally I would like that too, but that's not the real world. It's just a fairy tale for adults, or perhaps a falsely pious excuse to avoid the work of justice now, to imagine a future when God fixes it all for us so we are not responsible for fixing it ourselves." And that reaction would be very understandable, because too often Christians have used our expectation of Jesus returning in exactly that manner. There are even distorted theologies which explicitly make this move, condoning callousness about poverty because, in this age, "the poor you will always have with you" or dismissing concern over environmental destruction because "the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway. It's in the Bible."
But it's not, not like that, anyway. What the Bible describes, albeit in poetic, apocalyptic language very difficult for us to read in a culture which has lost the genre of apocalypse, is not "the abandonment of the present world, but rather its fulfillment," as N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar who is among the most important living Christian theologians, has explained. "You don't liberate something by destroying it," Wright continues. "All the beauty, all the goodness, all the pulsating life of the present creation, is to be enhanced, lifted to a new level, in the world that is to be. ... [So] there is a strong incentive to work, in the present, to anticipate the new world in every possible way."
The occupation of those who live in this hope of justice is not to muck things up so God has more to make right. It is to work with God toward that good end, to act now, insofar as it is possible, as the sort of people we will be then. And I'd submit the appeal of this narrative is not an item of evidence for its falsehood: If the hope Advent offers is real, we would quite expect to find a longing for it in every human heart.
Advent, then, is a season of hope and darkness. It is a season which looks unflinchingly at the evil that now besets us and stubbornly insists its days are numbered. And then the joy of Christmas comes, bringing with it a gaiety which, T.S. Eliot tells us, must "not be forgotten in later experience/In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium/The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure," so that our "accumulated memories of annual emotion/May be concentrated into a great joy/Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion/When fear came upon every soul:/Because the beginning shall remind us of the end/And the first coming of the second coming."
Christmas is coming, but it is not yet. Advent bids us wait, declaring justice is not yet either, but it will just as surely come.
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