Every year the Church rehearses the works of Christ for our salvation according to a pattern that developed in late antiquity and has been transmitted in the classical Book of Common Prayer. It is significant, in at least four ways, that the Church’s liturgical year begins with the season of Advent.
1) Right after Thanksgiving if not before, secular society plunges immediately into its commercial Christmas; and as a result, by the time Christmas finally arrives on December 25th, the world is exhausted and ready to move on. But Advent’s penitential purple indicates that such full-on celebration is premature. In the observance of Advent, we get to practice waiting for God to come, in patience and humility, sustained only by faith in his word of promise. The payoff of this impulse denial is that we approach Christmas with a feeling of growing expectation, and a readiness to hear again the angelic proclamation of Messiah’s birth as “news” – news that is “good tidings of great joy”.
Advent is much more than merely a season of preparation for Christmas. It has its own wisdom to impart. It’s deeply significant that we begin the Church’s year not with man’s search for God, but with Christ’s coming to us. Man does search for God, but apart from Christ’s coming to us, that search, however noble its aspirations may be, must finally fall short. For us to find the one we are searching for, for mankind to attain to God, God must first come to man.
2) God’s coming to man in Christ does not merely initiate the process of our return to God, but at every point sustains and completes it. At every step of the way as man returns to God, we are dependent on God’s coming to us. That is to say, our faith, our hope, our love for God, our repentance and obedience, our holy desires and aspirations, are always the work of grace both prevenient and cooperative. Advent teaches to look for Christ’s coming, and indeed to ask and long for his coming, as the very possibility of our return to God.
“Stir up thy strength, and come and help us: Turn us, O God; show the light of thy countenance and we shall be whole”.
3) It is in the coming of Christ in the flesh of our humanity that God comes to us, in which the whole motion of God towards his people begun in the Old Testament, (“I am come down to deliver them”, Exodus 3:8) is brought to fulfilment, when God takes upon himself the nature he is to save, and makes it the very instrument of that salvation. Even when Christ returns to the Father, he will return to the Father in the flesh of the humanity he assumed in his first coming, and even when the Spirit is poured out on his disciples as the earnest of our redemption, it is the Spirit not only of the Father but also of the incarnate Christ, by whom we are incorporated into one Body in Christ and made partakers of all that he has accomplished for us in his humanity. In short, because Christ has come in the flesh, the true fulfilment of our humanity – now prevented by sin and death – is certain. Because he has come, it is now possible that we shall become fully human – we who are as yet much less than fully human.
4) Christ’s coming is “both now and not yet”. We might think that means something that has just begun and is not yet fully realized, but we need to go further than that; for in a sense it has already been fully accomplished FOR us, in Christ, in his first coming; what we look for is its full accomplishment IN us, by his Spirit; the full revelation of the redemption that he has wrought for us, in our bodies and in our souls, when he comes again in judgment, and the dead are raised to glory or shame. Precisely because he has first come, and already accomplished our redemption, we know what to look for, and so through the practice of grateful remembering we may grow in confident hope. The world is very dark, the sinfulness of the flesh darkens our minds and corrupts our appetites, but Christ is on his way, and the sorrows of this present age will become like the fast-fading shreds of a departing evil dream. It is this remembrance of the past that is not nostalgia for a lost golden age, and this expectation of the future that is not fanatic utopianism, that gives the present its own meaning and significance, in which we look for coming of Christ by his Spirit in all of the circumstances of our lives, in all of the choices set before us, in the very least of the things we are called to do or to suffer.
The season of Advent is the calendrical symbol of God reaching out to humanity through Christ’s arriva —more than just preparation for Christmas, it is the essence of our theology and our spiritual journey. Our return to God hinges on God’s continuous presence in our lives. Our prayer in this and every moment must be: “Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come and help us: turn us again, O God, show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole.”