First Sunday in Advent

photo of two cats in a window looking at an advent candle
Looking forward to something during Advent

Yesterday, our pastor explained to our tiny congregation that the First Sunday in Advent is the “Christian New Year” – at least in the sense of it’s being the first Sunday of the new liturgical year. Happy New Year.

Every year, Christians who have this liturgical consciousness embark on an annual cycle of observance, remembrance, celebration, and so on with Advent, and finish up 52 weeks later with Christ the King Sunday (or, in inclusive language, Reign of Christ Sunday). On Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday (last Sunday) we affirm – because faith makes us crazy that way – that Jesus Christ is in fact the ruler of this world, and at the same time we admit – because, we are supposed to tell the truth* – that we don’t see a lot of evidence of that rule in the world around us and would like to see all that love and justice and peace with our own eyes. During Advent, we remember the sacred-historical time when God’s people looked forward to the arrival of a Messiah – from the Christian vantage point, Jesus, the incarnate Word – and remember that we are still looking forward to the ultimate arrival of the Messiah. So whether we call that ultimate arrival the second coming or the Parousia or the end times or the Kingdom of God or whatever, Advent reminds us that we are still looking forward to it, and to the better world it portends.

So, in a way, Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday and Advent are two ritual ways of saying the same thing, namely: yes, we trust God’s Promise of the Good, but we would definitely be OK with less Promise and more Good. We’re ready whenever You are.

Which makes me think of how “ready whenever you are” tends to work in our house. We agree to something we need to “get ready” for – “OK, sure, let’s go out for breakfast,” for instance. So about five minutes of finishing up a cup of coffee or reading a book or scrolling through whatever has popped up on the phone later, one of us says “So, you gonna take a shower? And then I’ll take a shower?” This takes some time, during which whoever is taking a shower is feeling good and productive and like she’s moving forward, and the other one is still or again enjoying drinking coffee or reading a book or scrolling through the phone or all of that at once. Then comes a round of “So, are you ready?” “Yeah, I just need to put my shoes on” “Well, I’m ready whenever you are” “Yeah, me, too, I’m totally ready” and then we finally get mostly packed up and moved in the direction of the door and then there’s a certain amount of “Have you seen my jacket?” and “I’m just looking for my glasses” and sometimes we make it all the way to the car and then have to go back to make sure the living room door is locked or to get the letters we were going to mail on the way …

Now that our daughter is away at college and there are just two of us to play this game, “ready whenever you are” is a little shorter than it used to be, but still means longer than it sounds.

This illustrates a point of Christian theology. Christians famously use the “already/not yet” plot device for everything. The Reign of God is already/not yet; eternal life is already/not yet; we already have everything that matters, from the perspective of faith and sometimes from the perspective of our own experience, and yet we still do not live the good lives in the good world we long for, not yet, not according to much of our own and others’ day-to-day struggles, or the morning’s headlines. The Christian story moves between the two simultaneous poles of already/not yet the way people breath air, in/out.

Advent is no exception. We’re already/not yet ready for that Reign of God.

Often, First Sunday of Advent sermons remind us about the not yet: that Advent is a “time of preparation,” of “getting ready,” the way people get ready for honored or persnickety guests by vacuuming and dusting and getting out the good china, or maybe the way teachers get ready for the coming term by editing the syllabus and reviewing and revising their lecture notes. Yesterday, though, our pastor emphasized the already: how rotten this year has been – natural disasters, warfare and murder and mayhem nationally and internationally, aside from whatever has been going on in our individual lives, the loved ones lost, the chemo received, the addictions battled. He pointed out that we begin Advent – this year, but really, always – with our human suffering and with lament, with naming what ails us, what we need, what we long for. Unless, of course, we don’t, because we pretend we don’t have any problems and don’t need anything, which would be the kind of lie* that shuts us off from other people, and from hope. Because always already, in the act of naming, of crying out in pain and complaint, of reaching out, we are also hoping. The act of lamenting, naming what is wrong, presupposes someone who hears it and cares about it, presupposes the possibility of an answer. That possibility is already hope. Lament and hope happen together.

So Advent is a specific way of telling that already/not yet story that is the air Christians breathe: We’re ready already, for a world of love and justice and peace, whenever You are; and we need reminding to get ready for the world we hope for, because we have not gotten our own lives of love and justice and peace on all the way – yet.

*Understood, a lot of Christians still tell lies sometimes, and some Christians still tell lies a lot. People.

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