I once heard William Willimon lecture at Otago University. He told a story of some students he had taken on a mission trip to Haiti during their summer break. During one of the final evenings of the trip, the students sat around a camp fire and shared their favourite passages of scripture with one another: John 10:10, “I come that you shall have life in the full” was one; Romans 8:28, “Nothing can separates us from the love of God…” was another. Then a Haitian woman, who had traveled with the group as a translator piped up. She wasn’t sure of the reference for her favourite bible passage, but she knew it was towards the end of Mark’s Gospel, and it was about the sun going black, and the stars falling from the sky, and Jesus saying, “Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers”. The students stared at the woman in stunned silence, until one of them had the courage to ask why that passage was her favourite. The woman answered with disarming simplicity: “Because this world is broken, and it needs to come to an end”.
The group later learnt more of this woman’s story. She had a tragic history of pregnancies ending in miscarriages, and the causes were preventable, but for the lack of medical care in Haiti. She didn’t just believe the world was broken at some theoretical level, she knew it in the core of her being.
Advent is a time for naming what is broken about our world, and holding space to long for a new one. If Lent is about confession (owning our part in what is broken), then Advent is about lament, which doesn’t seek to attribute blame, but settles for an honest naming of reality before God – the only one who can make things right.
There is a tendency to treat Advent like a warm-up band to the headline act. And of course, to an extent, it is that. However, Advent also has a distinct gift of its own – a gift that, if not received, will mean that the great coming of Christ in Christmas is in danger of being missed or misappropriated.
The message of Advent is a confronting one. John the Baptist is the pin-up boy for Advent, and his call to radical repentance. Of course repentance is not the moral hand-wringing that we have grown accustomed to imagining it as. It is a turning away from one way of being, and turning toward another. John’s baptism was a profound act of faith on behalf of the people of Israel, in that they knew what they were turning away from (their old lives), but they didn’t yet know what they were turning toward. They were waiting and watching for God to make the next move. They were waiting for God to arrive.
This is what Advent is about. Carving out space in which God can arrive into our world. The temptation is to start singing ‘Silent Night’ as soon as we hit December, but perhaps our congregations would find it more fruitful and formative to sing, ‘O Come, O Come Immanuel’ while pondering what kind of Messiah this world needs right now.
The four weeks of Advent are already embattled by the consumer Christmas atmosphere that assails us from every angle. How tragic that Advent may also be endangered by a similar haste from within the Church.
Advent has a distinct gift to make if we are willing to receive it. It is not the gift that many of us want, but it is the gift that all of us need. It is about unnerving settled and domesticated hope, it is about toppling temples that stand for empty religion and being willing to live amidst the piles of rubble trusting that something new and God-given is coming. Instead of rushing ahead in the story, acting as if we already have all we could want, we need to keep step with the saints, like John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna. If we can long for God throughout Advent, we may find that it is God that we truly receive come Christmas time.
Malcolm is a minister who makes great music while serving as Worship and Music Enabler for the PCANZ and is based in Dunedin where he adds his creative spark to the teaching programme at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership