20 Nov The Advent Proclamation: Christ Has and Will Come
“God had seen the misery of the world and had come personally to help. Now God was there, not as a powerful God, but concealed in humanity, where what is sinful, weak, pathetic, and miserable is found in the world; precisely there is where God appears and can be found by every human being.
And this proclamation makes the rounds anew through the world each year and is also coming again this year to us.”
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fourth Sunday in Advent, 1930, Havana, Cuba
After a tumultuous year, we return to the season of Advent. Like Bonhoeffer, the 20th century theologian and pastor who deeply loved Advent, we are able to enter this liturgical season of hopeful anticipation. Across the four weeks, churches the world over will boldly proclaim the incarnation and Christ’s coming into the world he created. Advent marks the beginning of the year, before moving into the rise and fall of the feasts and seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. Beginning four Sundays before Christmas (29 November in 2020), liturgically minded churches will drape the purple paraments, prepare the four Advent candles and the Christ candle, and lead their congregations through daily and weekly assigned psalms, Scripture, and collects before entering the Christmas celebration.
The word “Advent” is drawn from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “approach.” It is the season when the Church prepares her heart for the three-fold coming of God: his coming as the word made flesh, his coming into our lives daily through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and his second coming, promised in Scripture. Through Scripture and liturgical worship, the Church stands in holy awe of God’s descent to the world he created, coming in the flesh and taking on the human experience; the Church remembers and celebrates the presence of the Holy Spirit, who animates and gives meaning to our lives; and the Church prepares itself, with longing and hope, for God’s promised return in Christ to make all things right, captured in liturgical Scriptures like Isaiah 64:1: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”
Advent is not merely a sentimental prelude to Christmas Day when we open gifts, celebrate with friends and family, and promptly pack up the tree ahead of our long-awaited summer holiday. Advent is a season of preparation when we acknowledge that Christ’s arrival those two thousand years ago shifted the world’s axis, orienting it once again towards hope, life, joy, peace, and reconciliation with our maker. The advent of Christ is worth all our attention, but we’re prone to forget. Four weeks helps us recover the sense of wonder and magnificence of Christ’s in-breaking into the world.
What is Advent’s history and significance?
The Church offers countless treasures, particularly in the liturgical calendar, that help its people reorient themselves before God. But many of us have forgotten how to celebrate these seasons. My colleague, John Dennison, calls this work a type of ecclesial recovery where we remember, relearn, and re-enter the rhythms that have helped sustain, nourish, and form Christians for over 16 centuries. So, where does Advent come from? While historians have found the origins of Advent hazy at best, we can draw out particular moments and shifts in its celebration. In the fifth century, Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours, established a pre-Christmas fast, three weeks in length. This fast evolved over the coming century to cover eight weeks, concluding at the feast of Epiphany on 6 January, marking the end of Christmastide (otherwise known as the 12 days of Christmas). These fasts had both a penitential and eschatological bent. It was penitential as catechumens fasted in acknowledgment of their sin and brokenness before baptism at the feast of Epiphany and eschatological as the Christ mass emphasised Christ’s second coming to judge the living and the dead. For this reason, some continue to view Advent as a type of Lenten season—a time of fasting and sombre acknowledgment of how desperately we need Christ’s arrival. Pope Gregory the Great fixed the season at four weeks in the sixth century.
The first Sunday of Advent, known as Advent Sunday, focuses on consummation and eschatology; the second and third Sundays focus on the ministry of John the Baptist; and the fourth Sunday emphasises the events that immediately preceded Jesus’s birth, sometimes known as the expectation of the Virgin Mary. A common way of observing Advent, both in the home and in church, is the Advent wreath. Its first appearance was in the early 19th century when the founder of the German Home Mission, Johann Hinrich Wichern, set up a refuge and school for wayward young men. He invented the Advent wreath to help the young men anticipate and look forward to the coming of Christ. It began with 28 candles, lit daily with messianic readings and prophecy. The modern usage involves four candles, lit on each Sunday in Advent, and a Christ candle in the centre, lit usually on Christmas Eve. The symbolism of light and dark is a strong theme throughout Advent. It invokes Christ’s resurrection from the tomb—darkness to light—but also acknowledges Christ’s presence in the darkness of our lives—he walks and suffers alongside us.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century theologian, was the first on record to connect Advent to the three comings of Christ. The first is visible in the weakness and vulnerability of the infant; the second is invisible, hidden in our hearts, but containing God’s Spirit and power; and the third coming in glory and majesty. Bernard’s emphasis has become a common way of entering into Advent. The American pastor and author Philip H. Pfatteicher describes this three-fold advent in his book, Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year:
The manifold coming suggests an attractive complexity about the season. It is not just climbing back into the Old Testament and attempting a make-believe waiting, pretending that Christ has not yet come. The waiting of Advent is a real waiting, an authentic expectancy of an event that has not yet taken place, an event that still lies out there ahead of us … It is what J.B. Priestly called ‘the all-at-once of the Great Time, the eternal Dream time’ as opposed to the more prosaic ‘one-thing-after-another.’
What might Advent mean for us in our present moment?
As we come to the end of this calendar year, many of us would describe 2020 as a type of “one thing after another.” This year’s rhythms have bent and warped around global pandemics, deep social injustice and unrest, international and national elections, job losses, Alert Level anxieties, relational breakdowns, economic uncertainty, and other significant but less widely reported calamities. This year has felt like a relentless barrage of change and uncertainty around the future. Who really is on the throne? Will the world ever be at peace?
One of the many beauties of Advent is its acknowledgment of these doubts and deep longings, giving space for their expression. Matthew 11:2–11 is a key Advent reading. John the Baptist sends a messenger from prison to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s earnest hope and expectation for the Messiah is muddied by his human uncertainty about who or what the Messiah might look like. This is in keeping with the prophets and patriarchs who often doubted and wondered whether God’s promises would be fulfilled or how they might come to be. In our contemporary context, we might look at the world’s anguish—at destruction, waste, suffering, injustice, and death—and find it hard to see God’s restorative power and redemption. Pfatteicher draws out the words of Thomas Hardy’s war poem, “Christmas: 1924”:
“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.
There is room in God’s economy of grace for genuine uncertainty about how peace will reign, even as we acknowledge God’s reign. This is what Pfatteicher calls the “difference between unconvincing certainty that leaves no room for mistaken human vision and the far more honest and realistic confidence that is born of a daring faith.” During Advent, as we declare the reality of Christ’s coming, the Scriptures comfort us in our limited vision and call us to declare our faith in God.
This year’s return to Advent feels like a blessed relief, particularly for me. After a year of uncertainty, which has reminded us at every turn how little control we actually have, a season of reorientation back to Christ and his coming into our lives to save and redeem remains one of the greatest gifts the Church can offer its people. Across these next four weeks of Advent, Scripture and liturgical worship will remind us, over and over, that our Saviour has come in the flesh, dwells among us, and will come again. Our hearts long for the one who can make all things right. When governments plot or when best-laid plans fail, we are reminded that the true King and author of life has come to dwell among us. He has made and continues to make a way through the deep waters of sin and hopelessness and now sits on the throne of true authority. In the words of Bonhoeffer, God has come personally to help.
(Image: “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, pupil of Rembrandt, 1646, CC Zero)