Advent is a word that triggers images of candles, carefully lit when the darkness outside sinks early.
Advent comes with the fragrance of cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg, orange, and pine.
Advent makes me want to stay home and bake.
Advent makes we want to put thick socks on my feet and honey and cream in my tea.
Advent comes in a minor key before the major notes of Christmas gladness proclaim the birth of Christ with unbridled joy. A few longing notes open the gates – O come, o come, Emmanuel – and again we enter this season that locates us, unlike any other, between sentimental nostalgia and clear-eyed hope.
Advent triggers childhood memories of counting the days until Christmas, days that seemed to take Oh, so many more hours to pass than usual. We didn’t know it then, but we know now that we were practicing the difficult discipline of living watchfully and expectantly, with hearts wide open to the future God has promised.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune – without the words, and never stops at all.” Jeremiah and Isaiah sing, Moses and Hannah, Mary and Paul sing, and the words change, but the tune remains the same. During Advent, we live more deeply in the fabric of memory and hope, of promise and fulfillment, listening for the tune that never stops at all. 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 save 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 an angel’s visit, or with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle – it begins with the promises of God and the courage of those who dare to live in the light of God’s promises. During Advent we go back in time to remember the tune of God’s future for us and for all.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the 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).
Tom Wright wrote about waking up one early morning from a powerful dream. 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. He couldn’t remember what it was about. He invites us to wonder with him 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 all of us 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?” he invites us to wonder with him. “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.” 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 we need to learn to grab what we can, because the meek will inherit nothing. “Stop dreaming and toughen up,” they say, “the world’s not going to change.” Others say that the voice of justice and well-being comes from another 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 bullies and that’s that; they urge us to seek consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better, but not to hope that this world will change.
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; one who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; one who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness.
Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the songs of past fulfillments that nourish our faith.
I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the 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 remember the birth of Jesus, the king born in a manger. Jesus the ruler who overrules 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 on the earth.
“There will be signs,” he 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 the universe, of ecosystems 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 it doesn’t take much of a search on the web to read alarming reports about ecosystems stressed to the point of collapse or disintegrating social structures. The Mississippi is running out of water due to the massive drought, news of Frankenstorm Sandy is still fresh on our minds, and talk about the fiscal cliff makes us wonder if we’re all sitting in the back of the bus listening to the passengers in front of the bus discussing if the driver should use the steering wheel or the brakes to avoid going over the edge.
Why do we hear words about fear and foreboding in Advent, when all we want to do is cling to a sense of normalcy by going shopping and humming about city side walks, busy side walks, dressed in holiday style? We hear them because sentimentality and denial love each other’s company, but the good news of Jesus Christ won’t allow us to romanticize Christmas completely. We know that the babe in the manger grew up to inaugurate God’s reign of justice and righteousness on earth. 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 with hope. “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 may or may not give us reason for optimism, but because God is faithful. We stand up and raise our heads, because God is true to God’s promises.
Generation after generation, men and women have added their voices to the choir of witnesses singing of God’s faithfulness. We stand up and raise our heads and light one candle, do one small thing, because we await life’s fulfillment after the pattern of the life of Jesus, because we trust that the way of Christ is the way that all things shall go. In Christ, all things are held together; in him, all things shall be made new.
Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. During these days of Advent, we live more deeply in the fabric of promise and fulfillment, listening for the tune that never stops at all, because it is God’s own song.
 And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
 N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 3
 Wright, p. 9-10