We have begun, as we always do this time of year, a new church year. Advent is the Christian church’s reminder that we still wait for the coming Christ, as Judaism awaited its coming Messiah. The season marks two important breaks with American culture that upholds Christianity in a myriad of ways. For all of our talk of separation of church and state, the US government supports cultural forms of church life. Advent undercuts cultural Christianity by reminding us that our calendar and America’s calendar are not the same. The season also reminds us that we are not waiting for a baby but the promise of God’s reign. And as the lectionary readings suggest every year, whoa to those who wish for God’s reign for it looks nothing like the imagined image.
The church marks life at a different pace. For all the glitz of New Year’s Eve, the church initiates the new year in late November or early December. There is little fanfare in this country for this new season. Heck, in my Baptist upbringing, I didn’t even know there was this thing called Advent until I was in high school and our new pastor talked about it and an accompanying candle wreath—and then we lit the candles in the wrong order saving the pink one for the Sunday before Christmas. Advent, much like sabbath, is not an observed cultural norm. While Protestant Christians exerted much of their political energy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries trying to create legal codes for sabbath, they did so on the wrong day of the week and counter to all that the gospels tell us about Jesus and the Sabbath. Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, which these Christians actually turned into laws for society, sabbath calls us to reflect on our work. We do not rest because it is part of the legal code; we rest because sabbath ran counter to the notion of constant work. Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance is helpful here. The function of time is not simply for work/labor but a cyclical reminder that work brings us back to rest. In a Christmas season full of hectic schedules and constant instant gratification, sabbath calls us to be still in the chaos.
The season of Advent serves as a call to waiting patiently on God’s reign. American Christianity has embraced the triumphant return of a king on the throne—odd how that does not square with our institutions of government. Like the disciples who ask where they sit in relationship to the throne, American Christians have envisioned themselves as the victors. While it is not a stretch to see the New Jerusalem this way given certain texts in biblical scripture, Advent’s week of Hope should caution us on that reading. Judaism, long expectant for a king to rid them of empires, could not imagine a child born in a backwater town and living in an even more repulsive town—can anything good come from Nazareth?—was the one they were waiting for. And who would. A teenage mother, pregnant out of wedlock, paying taxes to the Roman empire that cared little about her presence in the world lived in perpetual fear that her betrothed would put her out, and she and the child she carried would be at the mercy of forces beyond her control. In the darkest corner of the world and the deep night of despair, God revealed God’s self incarnate. Emmanuel comes not as a privilege son of elites or even near a throne but as a child, screaming and messy the way all children come into this world. Mary and Joseph were aware that something is different but unaware of how any of it could be true. That is how Christians believe God breaks into space and time, small and hidden from greatness. Why would God change God’s pattern now?
Hope is not the baby Jesus helping us place Christ *back* in Christmas. It is the dark night of despair and the lonely places that empires create that requires light, even light that does not overcome the darkness. Jesus’ arrival does not end the Roman empire or Jewish suffering. But the hope is that whatever arc of justice God demands will be found in the love of parents for a child, even one that dies an insurrectionist’s death on the cross. We are called to hope for God’s reign not wish our own success in its arrival. And so Advent comes every year to remind us that we are different, not like this world, to stand against the darkness that tries to stifle God’s justice, looking in the faces of children whose families we would otherwise ignore.