We have begun the season of Advent. Advent is the English version of the latin word adventus, which means “coming”. If we know something is coming, we are in some sense waiting for it to arrive.
Over the millennia, Advent developed as a time of waiting for a new coming of Christ in the world. On one level, it may mean that we are moving towards the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But that is not the original meaning of the season.
Originally, the season of Adventus, was a time to prepare for, and wait upon the second coming of Jesus. That is why some of the scripture readings at this time of year are so dark and scary. They are drawn from the apocalyptic parts of the Bible which discuss a time in the near future, when Christ would return, and it would be the end of human history. That is definitely the tone of the Gospel lesson we just heard:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
Not very Christmassy! But understandable, especially for us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. The December weeks leading up to the winter solstice are the darkest time of the year. The days are shorter, the nights are longer. It is as if the sun, the source of light and life in our world is withdrawing. What if it did not come back?
There are always stories and predictions about the end of the world. The latest doomsday scare involves the end of the Mayan Calendar. What all the end of the world stories have in common is that they connect very deeply to our human sense of frailty. We don’t like to dwell on it all the time, because we like to feel strong and independent- but we know in our hearts that our very lives depend upon factors and forces that we do not control. We are as vulnerable as a homeless new born babe on a cold dark night.
Speaking of newborns, no one actually knows Jesus’ real birthday. The bible offers no clues. Actually, for the first 3 centuries of Christianity, there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth. The big Christian days were Easter and Epiphany. The Easter story was celebrated every Sunday. Epiphany was a big holiday, celebrated early in the new year, and marked not the birth of Jesus, but the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. This was considered vitally important, because the Magi were not Jewish. This meant that the message of Jesus was not just for Jews, but for people of all nations.
Some scholars think the date, and the tradition of celebrating Christmas, was introduced as the church made its way into the more northerly climes of Europe. The missionaries encountered pre-Christian religions that had festivals of light in the last month of the year. These festivals in the cold of winter were about praying to the sun, pleading with it to not abandon the world, but to return, and bless us with another year of life. The missionaries failed miserably in their campaign to get the people to stop these so-called pagan festivals of light. An alternative was to baptize the ancient holiday and turn it into a Christian celebration. The scholarly term is syncretism, which is another way of saying, if you can’t beat it, absorb it.
Whether we call it the Winter Solstice, or Advent, the season still carries the sense of waiting for something big. We wait for a sign that God is still with us, and we hope will not be abandoned, and left in the dark.
Hope is our word for today. Each week in Advent we are offered a different theme. If you get the chance, take a look at the Trinity Branches newsletter. I wrote an article for you that suggests a different spiritual exercise for each week’s theme.
All of these words, Hope and Joy and Peace and Love get used so much, and in such a variety of ways, that their meaning and power can get lost, watered down, washed away.
When I listen for how the word hope gets used, I hear at least two basic trends. One goes like this, “I sure hope it’s not busy at the mall today! “ To me this sounds more like wishing for something, than actual hope. It is also probably not the end of the world, if the wish does not come true.
Here is another way I hear the word hope being used. “Life can be hard. But I know that God is with us. I have hope that whatever happens, it will all somehow be okay.” That sounds like hope born of living through tough times, and coming out the other side. Hope that comes through living through enough dark Decembers to know the days do eventually get longer, the sun never really leaves us, and there will be brighter, warmer times ahead. Amen