“They have Christmas stuff up and we haven’t even had Halloween!”
When the young ones get it then we surely have a problem.
It has become an American past time to protest the way retailers keep slowly sliding the fake trees next to the costumes. But the reasons for protesting are pretty vague. Some say it devalues the fall holidays. Others just don’t want to hear “White Christmas” on the radios for so long. But for Christians, there is another important reason that Christmas simply cannot come early.
Christmas is an important holiday in the church calendar, and not only because it is the second largest church attendance of the year. For many Christians, the Incarnation is the single most important aspect of Jesus’ saving work. In the Incarnation, God is joined with humanity so that humanity may be joined with God. The emphasis on the Incarnation is so small in other parts of the year that we really need Christmas to remind us that Jesus was an actual person…you know, with crying and afterbirth and the whole deal.
But we need Christmas to remain after December 25 for one very simple reason: We are an Advent people.
Advent is the season of the Christian year that consists of the four Sundays before Christmas. This is the season where Christians are reminded to wait expectantly and hopefully for God’s great intervention into history. We are called to remember the people of Israel waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah and the end of their suffering under Roman oppression. Historically, Advent has been a penitential season because it’s a time of remembering that suffering.
Bearing with suffering in hope for God’s intervention is precisely where we live as those that live between the “already” and the “not yet.” Though God has already initiated the Kingdom, the realities of suffering are still with us until Jesus returns to establish the Kingdom finally. This is the reality of the church from Pentecost to Christ’s return.
We are an Advent people because, of all the liturgical seasons, it is the only season that reminds us of our current place in God’s redemption narrative. We are a waiting people.
That’s especially important because the question of suffering is maybe the most often cited objection to belief in God. Rightfully so. As a theologian, I’ve become convinced that theodicy, the questions and theology regarding suffering, cannot be answered adequately because the questions cut to the heart of our hope that is held only by faith. The only legitimate answer to suffering in the world is that God’s coming redemption will be so thorough that present sufferings will be immeasurably reversed. I think all those that believe God causes suffering for some greater good have a deficient notion of God’s goodness. I’m no less disturbed by those that believe God is too impotent to put an end to suffering. With those two options set aside, the hope that God will institute a radical and just end to suffering is the best answer to the problem of suffering. Because this hope is only assured by faith (Hebrews 11), it is not a satisfactory answer for the skeptic. And it is the greatest challenge to the faith of the believer as well.
Inarticulacy about this hope is one of the greatest challenges to 21st Century witness. What happens when the Church cannot name this hope well? If Christians cannot name the difficulty of the question of suffering and the hope for the future, then the objections to faith will result in trite or fatalistic unsatisfying mumblings.
But properly observing the waiting of Advent will train Christian people that God is patient and powerful. Just as Jesus finally comes to expectant Israel, so too will Jesus return to interrupt violence, oppression, and injustice. In the meantime we must be formed by the expectant hope of Advent. We need to see the slow growth of light from the Advent wreath. We need to move slowly toward the joy of the 12 days of Christmas so that we can learn to live the other 353 days with patience and hope.
Related Post: God is NOT with Us: An Advent Sermon