Advent is all about waiting. If you are at all familiar with Advent, that much is clear. Through our imaginations, we put ourselves in the shoes of the original Israelites and await the arrival of the Christ child. And I contemplate when I have been in seasons of waiting and what I am waiting for right now.
But my thinking about waiting is narrow and truncated, because Advent happens for four weeks and then it is over. I know Christmas is coming. I know the date. And I can’t scrub that from my thinking. As much as I try to share the anticipation of the people of God as they waited for a Saviour, I know when and how he will come.
But those first-century Jews didn’t. They had their ideas about what the Messiah might be like and do, but they didn’t know all the details. But an even more poignant reality is that I imagine most people were doubtful, apathetic, or forgetful in the midst of the wait. They were in the tail end of a 400-year period in which there were no official prophets in Israel to speak to the people (though clearly God was at work getting ready for his Son’s arrival). To some it seemed perhaps as if God had forgotten about them, and so they were doubtful that the Messiah would come at all. Or perhaps if God had forgotten about them, the only response was to forget about God — to go through the religious motions, but not give God much more thought than that. It isn’t like anyone in the country got up every morning and exclaimed, “Okay, this is the day the Messiah will be born. I just know it!” Even if someone had tried that for a while, the disappointment would would have been crushing and the discipline quickly abandoned.
All that to say, I don’t think the post-Jesus Advent tradition as typically conceived can truly allow me to appreciate the skeptical/weary/desperate culture into which Jesus was born completely unexpectedly.
But another part of the Advent tradition serves us better here. While most of the Advent material directs our eyes to the past and the first coming of Christ, Advent is traditionally also a time to remind ourselves to look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. In doing this, we more authentically share a connection with those who first welcomed Jesus into the world. We, from our vantage point vis-à-vis the Second Coming, are looking forward to something, just as the ancients were. We are anticipating something of which we have a sense because of the gift of biblical witness to it (enough material to whet the appetite and stimulate the imagination), just as the ancients did. And we have no idea when Jesus is coming, just as was true for those at the first Christmas. When I look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus and experience first-hand that anticipation, curiosity, and cluelessness, I am better able to know what was true for those around the birth of Jesus. And in the midst of that, I am also skeptical and forgetful. Sometimes the whole idea of the Second Coming is hard to believe because the wait has been so long. And because urgency is hard to maintain every day for 2,000 years, there are perhaps a handful of days of the year on which I am even reminded or remind myself that he is coming back one day. But otherwise out of sight, out of mind.
In this we discover the gift of Advent — for four weeks we can look both forward and back and consider what it means to wait and prepare, even in the midst of our longing, doubt, and apathy.