A Fresh Look at Advent

by Rev. Canon Stewart Murray, Incumbent at St. Barnabas, Ottawa

published in ‘Crosstalk’, November 2017

The season of Advent, the first four weeks at the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year, often get lost in the rush to Christmas. However, unlike Lent – which still holds a unique place in our spiritual lives – Advent is like an eccentric relative who comes to family dinners but we are not sure what to do with them.

Yet Advent has much to offer us in our growth in Christ. I have attempted to live the Advent season not simply as preparation for Christmas, but as a gift to be received and enjoyed on its own. A fresh look at the Scripture readings and prayers for Advent can be the starting point for entering into a deeper engagement with the themes of the season that begins this year on December 3.

One of the striking images that quickly emerges for me is that of standing at the crossroads of the unfolding drama of salvation. The readings help us to see the sweep of the history of salvation, of God’s search for humanity and His desire to restore, heal, and lift up His creation. We are invited to ‘look back’ and remember our story. Advent invites us to look back, and to see the people and events remembered as moments when the presence and grace of God extended into time and history.

In our modern culture, history is often thought of as what happened two months ago; we are so preoccupied with the immediate moment that we have lost any sense of perspective on our current state. We can easily forget that we are shaped as individuals, as society, and as the church by the revelations and experiences of the past. This is not to say we are captives of our history, but that without an understanding of how our history has shaped us, we cannot truly understand ourselves.

As Christians, our history becomes a resource of wisdom, gained from living the Gospel, on which we can draw to help us work out the challenges and opportunities of the present without repeating the mistakes of the past. That is why the ‘looking back’ theme of Advent is so important. We remember who we are as the People of God, formed out of the tumultuous interplay between God and humanity. At this very moment, we are in the midst of this wonderful and confusing interplay as the story of salvation continues to unfold both in and through us.

Advent is also very much about the future. The readings point us to the end of time and the culmination of the story of salvation – a new heaven and a new earth – the old order of sin and death will be swept away. The images of the end of the world, of judgement and the coming of Christ, create a dramatic and vivid picture the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. The challenge is that we are invited to participate in this wonderful, awesome story.

The Scriptures remind us that, at this moment in time, we are engaged in preparing humanity, and indeed all of creation, for the end of history and of time itself. Our vocation and mission is to be a living sign of the presence of Christ in the midst of the tumult of life in our day, to work for peacein the face of escalating conflicts in our world, to bring people into the fellowship of Christ, that they may find hope and healing in the midst of a society so often afflicted by despair and fear. Our parish communities are to be both a place of refreshment of heart and soul for the world-weary and a place where we are empowered to go out in service to the world.

Advent is a reminder to us all that the past, the present, and the future are in the hands of God, and that life, healing, justice, and peace will prevail over the brokenness, despair, and hatred which so dominate in our fallen world.