We have entered into the new liturgical church year as of last Sunday. The season of Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas, is the beginning of that calendar.
In the American South, many Christians are unaware of Advent. That’s because the South is filled with evangelical Protestant or independent churches that, for the most part, neither recognize nor celebrate the season. We Southerners are in the very tiny minority for whom that is true. The vast majority of the rest of the Christian world has celebrated Advent for centuries.
Many people believe that Advent is just the run-up to Christmas. But the season is more than that. “Advent” means “coming.” The dictionary definition is “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” So, Advent recalls, celebrates and anticipates the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.
An Advent hymn is not a Christmas hymn. An example of an Advent hymn, which is anticipating the birth of Jesus, is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The first verse of this song, in the public domain, says:
“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
So, Advent is about the coming of Jesus way back when. But Advent also looks forward to the coming of Christ at the end of the age of humanity. A portion of the ancient Nicene Creed anticipates this Second Advent:
“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.”
By the way, the word “creed” comes from the Latin “credo,” which means, “I believe.” So, every Christian and every church has a “creed” whether written down and recited or not. But I digress. There are, therefore, two “advents” present within the season: The first coming of Christ and, in the future, the second.
But there are also unlimited “advents” between the first and second coming that, while not officially celebrated during the season of Advent, are true, nonetheless. Christ comes to believers in the Sacraments of the Church.
My definition of a “sacrament” is “When the Divine touches the common and something holy and/or mysterious occurs.” In other words, something real happens. Sacraments are not simply symbols. For those who like math symbols, this might be expressed thusly: D -> C = H/M.
There are also “sacramental acts” where one encounters God in the midst of daily life. Others encounter Christ in the reading or hearing of scriptures. Jesus himself said that we encounter him in the meeting of the “least of these,” the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the unclothed, the prisoner, to name a few. He goes so far as to say that the way we treat these people is how we have directly treated him!
Many people can attest that Christ can come when one worships, or prays, or fasts. Mark 13:33 warns believers to “stay alert” in anticipation of his comings.
Sadly, there are vast numbers of people who have been baptized or even have had a “born-again” experience and then never give Jesus another thought until they are near death. Some people walk the aisle, so to speak, to get a taste of Jesus and see it as “eternal fire insurance” from Hell. They bought the policy so now they go on with life. A life, I might add, that is devoid of a relationship with the Divine.
But life, the Christian life, is far more than that. In fact, all of life can and should be a “sacramental life” where God is encountered often in daily life, not just in the church building. We offer him, the Divine One, the “common stuff” or our common lives and he can receive and touch what we offer and something mysterious, even holy, can occur, not just once in a lifetime, but throughout life.
Advent is a reminder that “God is with us.” It is a reminder that we should be on the alert for encounters with Him that He desires to have with us. It is also a short season of repentance when we look at our lives and ask ourselves if we can do better.
But Advent also looks beyond the current moment in joyous anticipation of what is to come. And what is to come is nothing less than Jesus himself.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]