It has occurred to me recently that Advent is one of my favorite seasons of the church year, even though I don't observe it perfectly. I love the growing light of the Advent candles, even though I don't remember to light them every night; I love the special prayers, even though I don't remember to pray them all the time. I love the idea of a slow progression to the wonder of Christmas Eve, even though more often it is a frantic rush of last-minute preparations.
It has occurred to me recently that I need Advent.
I am not saying that I need Advent because I need at least 25 days to buy presents and clean the house and prepare for the celebration, although it is true. The time comes in handy for all of the mundane and not-so-mundane preparations that are underway. And I am not saying that I need Advent in a sort of Grinch-like desire to spoil other peoples' Christmas fun. I enjoy the occasional pre-Christmas foray into celebration as much as the next person. And I'm actually not a prude about singing Christmas carols before Christmas, either.
But I need Advent, too. I need a season that reminds me to pay attention, and that the horizon is farther out than simply one day. I need a season that reminds me that in the middle of my yearnings for the sparkle and beauty of a tree, in the middle of my yearnings for a perfect celebration with grandparents and children and abundance, in the middle of my yearnings for carols in a perfect key, there is something deeper. I have fond and nostalgic memories of Christmases past, with extended families and many children; and I can get caught up in my grieving for those days, in my grieving for those I have lost and for things I never had. Advent reminds me that there are deeper longings at work in the world, that the whole creation is being redeemed, that the captives mourn in exile, that hearts are still hard. So the candles I light are not just for me, but for the whole world, lying in wait. And the preparations I make are not just for my own heart's good, but for the sake of the world being made new.
Some may deny it, but Advent is, like Lent, a season of repentance. But the emphasis is different in Advent. For repentance is a single turning, just a single turning which accomplishes two things: we turn away from sin and death, and we turn toward God and life and love. But the emphasis is Lent is the turning away, the struggle with sin, and the emphasis in Advent is the turning toward God. It is anticipation, watchfulness, lighting the candle and looking for the One who is coming, and who is already here.
It is still repentance, though -- because it doesn't matter so much where we are, but it does matter where we look. I can be at the shopping mall and all I see are consumers seeking bargains, or I can be at the shopping mall and see children of God, weary from working to make a merry Christmas. I can go to church and only remember the glory days when great crowds and and we were held in high esteem. Or I can go to church and see that God is working in and through us right now, doing justice, healing hearts, holding the hands of the dying, and of children.
Advent also reminds me that though there are many things that I can do, there are also many things that I cannot do. I cannot stay awake. I cannot remember to light the candle every night. I cannot make the flower bloom. I cannot stop death from coming to those I love. And so I wait.
The truth of Advent is that we wait for God, and that God is among us. While we mourn in lonely exile, Emmanuel has come to us, and is among us. While we wait, when we are not waiting, when we are forgetful, Emmanuel comes.
So I light a candle. Or, sometimes I forget to light a candle. And the long-expected Jesus comes, like a thief in the night, when I least expect him.
That's why I need Advent.