Advent is Here

Guest post by Ryan Hamm, associate editor at Relevant, and an eloquent appreciator of the church calendar. This is the first of several Advent-themed posts coming to this blog over the next several weeks.

When I was a kid, I didn’t even know there was a “church calendar.” I knew there were Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter. And I lived in in Austria, so I knew that the Catholics had something called All Saints Day where they did weird stuff at a cemetery that kind of freaked me out and CERTAINLY wasn’t Christian. I also knew that Good Friday was the day Jesus died, but that we didn’t dwell on it because we (unlike, say, Catholics, who still had him crucified above their altars) knew he came back to life a few days later.

To my parents’ credit, even if they didn’t teach me the church calendar (and frankly, I don’t know if any kid can really get a handle on something so abstract—especially when the much-more-pressing school calendar is built around trick-or-treating, Valentine’s and the eternal Pilgrim/Indian dichotomy), they did instill a deep respect for the Christian understanding of holidays. But I only ever knew what a portion of them meant, and I only knew of all of them out of context.

I knew what Advent was, because we lived in Austria and even my non-denom (but mostly Baptist) church celebrated it. I never thought of it as a “Catholic” thing, as I’ve heard it called in the States—instead, it seemed like a way to stretch out the observance of Christmas an extra few weeks, which was fine with me, mostly because singing Christmas carols never seemed as laborious as normal church songs (this is still true).

It was a subtle, but meaningful shift when I began to learn about the church calendar. I saw how our everyday lives were, in fact, framed by a way of thinking that meant more than eight hours of work. And the church calendar instructed me that each part of life was savored and used, not discarded in favor of something more palatable.

To a great extent, the church calendar is the reason I learned to sit in mourning (though never hopelessly) instead of demanding that everything be fixed right away. It’s why I learned that Easter is so much richer when you’ve gone though the joy of Palm Sunday, the reflective servanthood of Maundy Thursday, the ache and horror of Good Friday and the weird in-between of Holy Saturday. It’s why I came to treasure the Sunday liturgy that takes us through confession to absolution to the receiving of Christ’s body broken for us and his blood shed for us.

And it’s why my December turned into Advent.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who refuses to acknowledge any celebration of Christmas. I have a deep love for Christmas kitsch, from the Rat Pack to Charlie Brown Christmas, from stockings to a staunch support of Santa Claus as the embodiment of a nostalgic “Christmas spirit.”

But Advent is deeper. It’s under all of that.

Advent is about waiting. It’s a restless yearning. It’s four weeks (and, well, lifetimes) of apprehensive, hopeful, breathless, doubting, eager anticipation. It’s the time that forces our schedules to fit into a bigger one—where we try to remember what it was like to wait for Christ’s coming, and we do so by remembering we’re also waiting for Christ’s coming. For people expecting the arrival of Messiah, we must imagine that evoked many of the same emotions his second coming evokes in us. A mixture of hope and fear, and the knowledge that the mysterious unknown will somehow, by God’s grace, be better than the present. Advent reminds us that we are observing the time before Christ’s birth, death and resurrection declared that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. And it reminds us that we are all waiting for a time when he will again declare his victory—but this time the fully consummated Kingdom will be brought to fruition.

There’s something comforting to me that things don’t happen immediately with the church calendar. Because things don’t happen immediately in life. We don’t turn off the light on Thanksgiving evening and then wake up on the day after suddenly celebrating Christmas just like we don’t go though a traumatic experience and get healed in a day, or fall in love in a day, or make friends in a day. There is value in truly being in the present, preparing for the future with what you’re given. When we adjust ourselves to the timing of God, we find a breathtaking, faith-giving depth in the booming quiet.

One of yesterday’s readings in churches around the world was Romans 13:11-14. Part of that passage reads “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” It’s a reminder that the light is just on the horizon—but it’s not yet here. We wait and yearn for the light. In the meantime, we’re in the darkness but we live as if we’re in the light. We spend our time preparing ourselves for the joy of Christ’s birth and second coming. We wait, but we don’t spend our time doing nothing. We wait expectantly, like those virgins who trimmed the wicks of their lamps. We wait like Simeon. And in the waiting, God moves.

In short, Advent is about unresolved and promised hope. A hope that we cling to, even when we’re not quite sure it exists. Waiting is about faith, not certainty—certainty doesn’t require any trust. In Advent, God promises “Christ will come.” Because he already has. And the quiet anticipation changes everything.