Christians have an odd way of keeping time. Most of the time most of us think of Sunday as the last day of the week and the cap of the weekend; it’s the day before the grind of work and school cranks back up on Monday morning. But, Christian faith invites us to think of Sunday as the first day of the week, not the last. If we think of Sunday as the first day, then the week begins not in work but in rest, not in noise but in prayer, not in worry but worship. We begin not with our goals and ambitions, but with “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The week does not start with Monday’s priorities and to-do lists; it starts with Sunday’s surrender of our whole lives to God.
The church’s year doesn’t begin on January 1, either; it begins four Sundays before Christmas, in the season known as Advent. In our culture’s way of marking the calendar, the year ends on December 31, with old and weary Father Time making a quiet midnight exit and with the bouncing baby of a new year screaming into the world.
Advent is a season of waiting. We look forward to celebrating again the birth of Jesus and to experiencing a rebirth of hope, joy, peace, and love. We don’t rush madly to the manger in Bethlehem, like early-bird shoppers running through a store to snap-up scarce bargains. We take our time. We remind ourselves that we are not the first people to wait for the Messiah to come. Israel waited, and we have lessons to learn from their yearning for the appearance of God’s saving presence and redeeming power.
And, our waiting has not ended: the Christ who came at Christmas will come again to finish the work he decisively began in his death and resurrection. We wait for that good work to come to completion, for death to be swallowed up in victory, for every tear to be wiped from our eyes, and for there to be no more mourning, or crying, or pain.
Advent is a season of anticipation: as these weeks unfold, the light grows brighter in our souls and the songs of the angels, faint at the start, resound more loudly at the end. We can feel Christmas coming and Jesus being born again in us and our being born again again in him.
Advent is something like the moments just before sunrise. Although the sun has not yet crested above the eastern horizon, the light has already begun pushing back against the darkness. Advent is when the shadows and the sunlight struggle against each other; some things remain hidden, but we know they will be seen. The chill remains, but we have the promise of warmth. As the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann said: “The believer is not set at the high noon of life, but at the dawn of a new day, at the point where night and day, things passing and things to come, grapple with each other” (Theology of Hope). Advent is the season when it all begins, when the night ends and morning dawns, and God’s people feel the stirrings of hope.