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Advent is a season of anticipation, hope, and waiting for the arrival of Christ. The advent wreath, the lighting of candles, the preparation of the children’s nativity play: all of these church traditions invite us into the anticipation, hope, and waiting which are central to Christian life. I love these traditions, and probably for that very reason, I also find myself discontented with them, or at least with the way we sometimes engage them. They too easily become another part of the rush to Christmas, and we move through them like items on a to-do list.
Again, I appreciate these traditions (or at least many of them), because, even if they are co-opted by the rush of this season, they call our attention to something that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar—familiar in the sense that they are repeated practices, unfamiliar in the sense that they represent a change in the church year. Practices that blend familiarity and unfamiliarity have the potential to significantly shape us. We need surprise and newness to wake us out of our typical slumber, our going through the daily grind of life without noticing the works of God all around us. And such awakening often best happens in the comfort of the known. At the very least, I think this challenges us, as church leaders, to consider the re-working, the renewing of these Advent traditions, knowing that we are ultimately dependent upon God’s Spirit to move in and through us in the midst of these traditions. Renewal and awakening are the work of the Spirit after all.
At the same time, I think there is something more that might revitalize our journey through Advent: the awakening of longing. Anticipation, hope, and waiting are lived realities when they are experienced in the context of heart-rending yearning for healing, peace, justice, wholeness, and goodness in our lives, in the lives of friends and family, indeed, in the whole world. Where is poignant longing in our churches? When are our hearts split wide open, leading us to prayer again and again and again that God’s kingdom of God might come? While this, too, is the work of the Spirit, our Advent rituals could be so ordered that we are invited into the longing for the kingdom of God in all its fullness to come–not an abstract longing but rather the very concrete, central longings of our own existence.