Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
Here’s the funny thing about Christmas- the holy days, not the holiday- it’s the shortest church season we have. Even if Lent starts early, Epiphany is still longer than 12 days. Lent is forty days. The Easter season is fifty days. The season of Pentecost or Ordinary Time goes on past twenty weeks. Advent is four weeks. Christmas, as church season, is short.
Many of us get tired of seeing the Christmas things all around us long before we show up to mark the birth of the Savior and our true expectation of God’s completion of that good work in Christ’s return. Christmas can get old before it gets here and yet we’re uncertain what to do with Advent. (How many have Advent wreaths in their homes?)
Frankly, I’m feeling very Advent. I go into Safeway and I hear, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” Yet all I can think about is the number of suicides that have been in the news this week.
I enter Fred Meyer and hear: “I really can’t stay (Baby, it’s cold outside). I gotta go ‘way (But, baby, it’s cold outside).” Yet, I think about the people who call the church office every week asking for food assistance, for gifts for children, for rental help.
I wait to get my oil changed and I hear, “Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree… for me… been awful good girl.” I think about the people who use the Listening Post downtown and the volunteers there who hear powerful and overwhelming stories, every day of the year- not just in this season.
I turn on the car radio and I hear, “’Come,’ they told me, Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum.” I think of the drums of war, the drums of greed, the drums of fiscal concern that are beating all around.
I have an Advent ache and the Christmas music can’t drown it out. The short Christmas season is never long enough to overcome all of these less cheery realities that are currently part of this life.
So then I sit in my office and I turn to the reading for this week- four short verses from the prophet Joel. Thinking about Joel’s time frame, one might expect that the book would be full of rejoicing, but it’s not. Joel is writing to the Judeans who have returned to Jerusalem after the exile. There may be a few people who can still dimly remember earlier days, but most of the exiles are younger and have never seen the city. The temple ruins, the place the market once stood, the homes haunted by memories of what was before Babylon swept in and carried it all away… the most intense longing for Jerusalem did not prepare them for the return.
And in those first days and first weeks of trying to reclaim, resettle, restore, no one wants to say how disappointing it all is. How it is not what they expected. How the triumphant return has not only fallen flat, but flat out sucks. They are expecting Christmas- actually, they are longing for the Messiah- but they are in a very Advent time.
And, honestly, it is an Advent time for God. The people did not return thanking God. They didn’t speed over the hills and valleys, with their hearts in their throats in anticipation of worshiping in what was left of the temple. Some of them chose to stay in Babylon, to adapt to life there-including the religious practices of the new location. God’s waiting, too- waiting for people to heed the call of the prophets, to sing the songs of praise, to stop taking favor for granted, but to put it to use for making the world a better place.
It’s the Advent ache. Things are not what we would hope for. We are not always what God would hope for. The longing of this season allows us to sit in silence with that and to express our longing for God’s answer to the problem, to the gap, to the divide. The longing of the season allows us to sit with God’s own longing hope for creation. The response to that hope came at the first Christmas…and comes again in all kinds of ways.
Our Advents hymns express this longing, especially some of the ones that are worked into our liturgy.
Consider: Come, thou long expected Jesus- “born to set thy people free- from our fears and sins release us- set our hearts at liberty…” (Charles Wesley) The verses of this song express our hope in all that Christ’s advent will bring- freedom, peace, rest.
Consider: O come, O come, Emmanuel- written as early as the 8th century (or maybe a little earlier). Based on the old “O antiphons” or verses that reflection Advent anticipation. The verses in Latin form an acrostic, a word out of the first letter of each verse, the word Erocras meaning, “I will be tomorrow”. The longing for Christ in the song is answered, mysteriously, by a response that Christ is coming.
Consider: Ososo, or “Come now, O Prince of Peace”. This is a Korean hymn, written in 1988 for a world conference focused on attaining peace and reunification for the Korean peninsula. “Come now, Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations” has a very different feel when you are considering people who are separated from family members, from resources, from peace.
These are songs of Advent, songs of longing, songs that say, “Things are not what we hoped for.” The answer we get, to our singing and our sighing, is “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Return to the Lord… gracious and merciful… steadfast love… slow to anger…
Christmas is a short season, in part because we live in an Advent world. A world that has received God’s body in its midst and still remains broken. A world that has seen (and still sees) miracles like no other. A world that has been gifted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit… and still cries for reconciliation, for peace, for grace. It’s not a sin to not be ready for Christmas. It’s a reality. It’s a real expression of where we are, who we are, and what we are asking God to do in the world. It is honest to look at the paper, the city, the news, the world, and say, “This is not what we hoped for.” It echoes what God also is saying to us.
Advent means God has not let our hope die. Advent is a season for waiting in the Lord, for returning to the Lord, for hoping in the Lord. It is not yet time for “Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice...” It is the season of “Come, now, O God of love, make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.”