Traditionally, Advent has been understood as the first season of the Church’s new year, according to the Church Calendar. Before we talk about Advent specifically, it may be helpful to consider the Church Calendar first.
The Church Calendar is an invitation to center the seasons of our lives on the seasons of Christ’s life. It is not commanded by Scripture—but it can form us into a people who see the world through biblical eyes by involving us deeply in Scripture. By patterning our lives on the key events of Jesus’ life, the Church Calendar allows us to contemplate the mysteries of the Incarnation of God, Epiphany, Jesus’ baptism and Kingdom Ministry, His “setting His face like flint toward Jerusalem” following His Transfiguration, His heralded entry into Jerusalem, His Last Supper, Crucifixion, Death and Burial, Resurrection, Ascension, and finally the sending of His Spirit upon His Church in Pentecost.
The trouble for those of us raised in liturgical traditions is that we too often approach observance of the Calendar as yet another empty ritual, devoid of meaning or sense. As so many liturgies remind us, unless the Lord opens our lips, our mouths cannot declare His Praise. Without the enlightening, inflaming work of the Spirit, observance of the Calendar is useless. Dead eyes, dead hands, and dead hearts cannot bring Christ’s Story to life. But through the Spirit, our hearts can be lit afire with love and desire for all the things of God, including a deep yearning to know who Jesus is, not just at an abstract intellectual level, but in a deep, personal, existential way.
The beauty of the Calendar is that once the Spirit fills our hearts with love, we don’t simply wrestle intellectually with the meaning of the events of Christ’s life—we become so deeply wrapped up in Christ’s Story, so involved in God’s reconciliation project, that we share and experience the events of Christ’s life. In Christmas, we rejoice that God has punched into our corrupted reality, enslaved by dark powers, to set us free, and we are overcome with awe that He has done so in the form of a little baby born in a humble manger. In Lent, we share Christ’s sufferings as He stares down the road that will lead Him to the Cross, knowing that where He was able to overcome every temptation, apart from Him we are helpless before the idols that continually tempt our hearts. In Easter, we triumphantly claim a share in Christ’s Resurrection, confident that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Which brings us back to Advent, the first season of the Church’s new year. Advent is all about longing—the longing of zealous Jews for liberation from exile and foreign domination, the longing of poor peasants for a Davidic King who will bring good news to the poor, and the longing of the priests for the return of God to His Holy Temple. All of those longings are subversively fulfilled in an unexpected way, through the Incarnation of God, and we celebrate that amazing reality in Christmas.
But until Christmas comes, we wait. And by waiting, we share in the longing of Israel for priestly and kingly liberation. In this way, we come to more deeply understand our longing as the Church for Christ’s Second Coming, where He will Consummate the Kingdom and finally Reconcile All Things to Himself.
Come Thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free,
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee:
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
-Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Words by Charles Wesley