TUPELO – The basic thrust of the Christian life is a strong sense of expectation, a belief that, though life is filled with good and holy things, greater things are yet to come.
The temptation for Christians is to sometimes grow impatient, to want see God’s promises brought to completion here and now.
During the four weeks of Advent, which begin tomorrow, churches in the Western liturgical traditions live out their anticipation of the birth of Christ through word and symbol.
Advent coincides with popular culture’s ramp-up to Christmas. Theologically, the season expresses the basic tension of Christian belief: Christ has come already, and he will come again in glory at the end of time.
During Advent the faithful are encouraged to live with joy and expectation while at the same time remembering to be patient, and to faithfully await the fulfillment of God’s promises.
For most families across Northeast Mississippi, the weeks leading up to Christmas are a hectic time. Once the calendar flips past Thanksgiving, the interval until Christmas passes in a blur of busyness. Amid the hurrying, even people of strong faith sometimes lose a sense sacred time.
“For a lot of ministers, it’s hold on to your hat,” said the Rev. Bob Dalton, pastor in residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston.
“I love the season,” said Dalton. “But I’m always amazed at how, by the time Christmas arrives, I’m exhausted – and I’m semi-retired.”
Some radio stations start playing Christmas songs the day after Thanksgiving, and signs and advertisements start going up just after Halloween.
Each year the cultural tide seems to push Christmas a little farther up the calendar.
The Rev. David Mac Kain sees a kind of restlessness and impatience in the urgency of Christmas promotions.
“We’re an instant gratification society,” said Mac Kain, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Tupelo.
“Unfortunately, during this time of year, we sometimes lose a sense of the sacred, of stillness and quiet, of the awe and majesty that should accompany Christmas and the time leading up to it.”
“I call it a Burger King World,” said the Rev. Will Rogers, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Tupelo. “We expect to have it our way, right now,” he said.
In the greater scope of the Bible, Jesus arrives on the scene fairly late. Many of the biblical stories portray people waiting in expectation for God to fulfill his promises.
In the Old Testament, Abraham and Sarah waited for a child. Isaiah and the prophets waited for justice. In the New Testament, John the Baptist worked patiently in expectation of the one who would follow him.
The word “Advent,” is Latin for “coming,” and for Dalton, the most poignant, biblical example is the tale of the Prodigal Son.
“The story says that even while the son was a long way off, the father sat watching and waiting,” said Dalton. “God is waiting for us, with open arms. I think we’re still a long way off, but God waits on us – waits on us to become just, loving and peaceful.”
The focus of Advent, Dalton said, is to cultivate the kind of loving patience the father had for his lost son. This year’s readings for the first weeks of Advent convey this sense of vigilance, like Matthew 24: 36-44, and Romans 13: 11-14. The texts reassure the faithful that Jesus is coming, and that things will be made right, but for now, believers are to pray and be patient.
Coming of Christ
The liturgical calendar begins anew each year at Advent. Throughout the the year, the cycle of biblical readings traces Jesus’ life from birth to death. In many ways, Advent mirrors Lent, the season leading up to Easter.
“The overlap, or the dual emphases of these seasons can be very powerful,” said the Rev. Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo. “Of course, we’re not pretending that Jesus hasn’t already come, but we’re rehearsing this story in light of the victory that God has already brought into being.”
Understanding Advent as a compliment to Lent, Brooks said, highlights the essential tension between the already and the not yet in Christian theology; that is, between Jesus’ first and second coming. That tension creates a sense of expectation that is translated into liturgy.
“Christian hope isn’t just to go away to heaven, it’s that God will renew us,” said Brooks. “Advent is really about living openly, expectantly and lovingly in the time in between, when we work for justice and peace and beauty, because those things matter to God.”
Each Sunday during Advent, members of churches in the Western liturgical traditions, like Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists and some Presbyterians, light a candle on their Advent wreaths.
The candles are reminders of Christ as the light of the world, and as the weeks pass they serve as a countdown to Christmas.
On Tuesday, Gene and Jennifer Chase and their five children took their Advent wreath out of storage and put it on the dining room table.
“We’re waiting for Jesus’ birthday,” said 7-year-old Sam, leaning in close, his eyes wide, as he watched his older brother, Connor, light the first candle for a trial run.
Nearby sat 18-year-old Andrew, along with younger siblings Ryan and O’Neal. Patience, they all agreed, is a hard virtue to come by when the glorious promise of presents looms on the horizon. But lighting the candle each week will remind them to slow down, and to pray as a family.
Each Sunday, as the Chases light their candle, over in Union County the Rev. Brownie Tohill will be doing the same thing. The candles are a reminder, he said, to live “in repentance, and with deep love for one’s neighbor.” Tohill serves as pastor of Glenfield United Methodist Church, and the title of his favorite sermon about the second coming expresses well the anticipation of Advent. Said Tohill, “I call it, ‘Ready or not, here I come.’”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal