Advent Tunes

Advent is one of the most magical words I know. It is a word that triggers images of a wreath on a table and candles, carefully lit when the darkness outside sinks early. Advent comes with the fragrance of cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg and orange, hazelnut and pine. Advent makes me want to go home early and bake.

Advent makes we want to put thick socks on my feet and honey and cream in my tea. Advent makes me want to change all the songs on my ipod to carols from every country under heaven. All it takes is a handful of longing notes – O come, o come, Emmanuel – and the gates open and my heart is ready.

Advent triggers childhood memories  of counting the days and trying to imagine the wonder of Christmas. Advent wakes in me a longing that I know all year, that I can talk about and preach with hundreds and thousands of words, but that is always, always better sung.

“Hope,” Emily Dickinson wrote many years ago, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.”

The words change, the tune remains the same – composed of the voices of Jeremiah and Isaiah, Moses and Hannah, Maria and Paul. Advent is magical in weaving together memory and hope, promise and fulfillment, and teaching us to sing along and to live to that tune.

During Advent, we go back in time – to cherished family traditions, to customs lovingly preserved year after year, to worn tree ornaments that each hold a story – we go back to the days when we first heard how God became little like us in order to free us. We go back in time, way back to the days when the prophets first spoke of God’s judgment and mercy, and God’s people first affirmed that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 25:10).

Advent doesn’t begin with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle, nor does it begin with an angel’s visit – it begins with the promises of God and the courage of those who dare to live in their light.

During Advent we go back in time to remember the tune of God’s future for us.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and house of Judah. In those days (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:14-15).

Justice and righteousness in the land, and the meek shall inherit the earth.

Tom Wright woke up one early morning form a powerful and interesting dream. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember what it was about. He had a flash of it as he woke up, enough to make him think how extraordinary and meaningful it was, but then it was gone. Tom wonders if our dreams of justice and righteousness are like that. We have a flash of a world at one,  a world where things work out, not just for some, but for all, a world where societies function fairly and effectively, a world where we not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up in the world as it is, and we can’t get back into the dream.

Wright wonders where that kind of dream might come from.

"What are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream? It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all (Simply Christian, p. 3)."

For some, this echo of a voice is only a fantasy, a wishful projection that has nothing to do with the way things really are. They say that this is a world of naked power and grabbing what you can get, and that we must stop dreaming and toughen up to live in it.

Others say that it is a voice from a different world, a world into which we can escape in our dreams, and hope to escape one day for good. For them, this world is run by unscrupulous bullies and that’s that; all we can do is seek some consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better.

But there is a third possibility, and it is the one people of faith have embraced for generations. “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have.” The reason we have these dreams of justice and righteousness, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us; someone who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; someone who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness (see Simply Christian, pp. 9-10).  

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right what has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the songs of past fulfillments that nourish our courage to trust.

I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and house of Judah. (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:14-15).

During Advent we go back in time, remembering the promises to Abraham, to Moses and the prophets, and how they have been fulfilled in ever new ways, generation after generation. We look back in time, remembering the birth of Jesus, the righteous Branch God caused to spring up for David; Jesus the King born in a manger; Jesus the ruler who overruled our concepts of power with his grace and obedience; Jesus the teacher who continues to stretch our imagination; Jesus the judge who was executed like a criminal, but who sits in glory at the right hand of God; Jesus who will return to execute justice and righteousness in the land – a land stretching from east of the sun to west of the moon, a land where nothing but the purposes of God rule all creation.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the church year, we hear the ancient promises renewed.
Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25-26).”

What is he telling us? Sun and moon and stars are symbols of cosmic order. They represent the reliable succession of day and night, of seed time and harvest, of tides and seasons. The orderliness of the lunar cycle and the earth year represent the orderliness of natural systems and human society.

In the days of Jesus and Luke, signs in the heavens weren’t just interesting astronomical phenomena, but indicators that things on earth were out of order. Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars reflected a disintegration of social and natural order into chaos – something like creation backwards.

We may find the “sun and moon and stars” language foreign, but we are familiar with “fear and foreboding.” We don’t look to the sky for signs, but we don’t have to search the reports of scientists and journalists for very long to read about ecosystems stressed to the point of collapse or disintegrating social structures. Movies like “2012” find deep resonance in our culture because they connect with our fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. The fact that an international climate conference is being referred to as “Hopenhagen” speaks not only of the advertising industry’s creativity, but is a sign of deep anxiety among many about the future, a sign that for many the very powers of the heavens are shaken.

Why do we hear these words in Advent?

We can’t let Christmas get completely romanticized, dwelling on the babe in the manger, forgetting that we stand this side of that event – we know who this child is. We live with our eyes focussed not solely on the rearview mirror, but on the road ahead. We begin the season of Advent with a look forward because the babe in the manger grew up to inaugurate the reign of justice and righteousness on earth. We begin with a look forward because we celebrate the birth of the redeemer of history, and we cannot celebrate Christmas properly without looking forward to God's promised future.

This season bids us not only to celebrate the Christ who has come to us, but to look to the day when he will come and bring about the redemption of the world.

Jesus isn’t talking about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars to scare us, but to assure us that even when the powers of the heavens are shaken, we are to stand up and raise our heads – because what is drawing near is redemption. He urges us to stay alert and faithful in prayer, to be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with worries but lifted up with courage. When all around us people are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, we are to stand knowing who is coming.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:27-28).

How can we stand? Not because present economic, cultural, or political trends give us reason to hope, but because God is true to God’s promises.

Because generation after generation, men and women have added their voices to the choir of witnesses singing of God’s faithfulness.

Because Jesus has given fresh power to the echo of a voice we hear in our soul every time the prophets speak.

Advent bids us to stand erect, confident and hopeful, because all time, past, present and future, is entwined with the past, present and future of Christ.

Advent is magical in weaving together our best memory and our boldest hope, and teaching us to sing along with the tune God is humming, and to live to that tune.