Advent is one of my favourite times of the year, despite the long nights and damp English weather. It is full of expectation and hope.
Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which can either be translated as ‘arrival’ or ‘approach’.
In our present age, it’s all about ‘arrival’ – the arrival of Christmas decorations, Christmas shopping, the endless (agonising?) playing of Christmas songs. Not that we have to wait for the 1st of December any more, of course. It all begins in November.
Yet Advent it’s better understood as ‘approach’. When something is approaching, you can see it in the distance, slowly drawing closer. But it hasn’t arrived yet. You’re waiting for it.
We don't value waiting much in our culture, and I don’t suppose any of us master it with ease. We hate to wait for the bus, for dinner, for the day to be over so we can go home. Our favourite TV programme, the latest film, the newest ‘phone, the season’s sales…. Yet learning to wait is probably the most important lesson life can teach us.
Without it, we often find ourselves with shattered dreams. What was promised as special becomes mundane since much of the value of the thing was held in the waiting – in the game of anticipation and excitement. Lose that, and disappointment results.
Too frequently we grab an experience before its time and in that sense become rapists of our own lives. What we call taboos are often experiences that society – in its wisdom – has left to mature, like vintage wine, to be tasted when the time is right, not before.
For most of us such acts of impatience bother our lives, but nothing more. We quickly learn self-discipline and grow up. For others, they can be disastrous, and for society, catastrophic.
Disillusion is at the heart of many social ills because it’s the death of our dreams. Yet today society encourages children to grab experience now, to know everything now, to be part of the entirety of life’s experiences now. Why? What are we so scared of? That our world will end tomorrow?
Waiting requires hope. We must hope and believe that the thing we’re waiting for will be ours one day. This isn’t about inactivity; I’m not saying: sit back and wait for it all to fall into your lap. But I am saying, find a balance: hold in tension the twin virtues of inactivity and activity as you learn to wait.
As a confused, liberal theist, I’m not sure I have sufficient strength to hope on nothing. And I’m not convinced the ‘universe’ is all that kind. I think we're too frail and too impermanent to be the ground of our own dreams. So that’s way I like Advent. In the past, the churches used to cover their statues and wait in sombre anticipation. Like the people of Israel who waited for the Messiah through centuries of suffering, so they shared something of their desperate expectation. Then on Christmas Eve, as midnight tolled, the candles were lit and the Christmas celebrations began.