Advent: Haunted Anticipation
“O come, O come, Emmanuel / And ransom captive Israel / That mourns in lonely exile here / until the Son of God appear / Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel”
There is no music so sublime as our Christmas hymns. Why is that? There is something mysterious, nearly haunting about their melodies. All Advent and Christmas traditions feel enchanted in this way, almost magical, haunted by a presence familiar and otherworldly. The Christmas tree, the lights, the carols and cider. It is more than mere nostalgia. It moves us beyond words.
Hope takes on a new meaning this time of the year. It starts with thanksgiving and it grows with the decorations and festivities. It is a hope embodied in the words, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Christendom has produced poetry for two thousand years. Uncountable books overflow with poems from every culture. In all Christian poetry, no phrase is so emotional and stirring as these opening words, “O Come, O Come.” They strike a chord in the soul, a longing, that defines us. This is the purpose of Advent: to stir up this longing.
“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mt. 24:15-35).
Advent prayers are strikingly apocalyptic. For the next few weeks, our scriptures and readings point us to the end times. This can seem strange at first. We are preparing for Christmas after all, but Christmas and Advent have a very different spirit in the Orthodox Christian world. If there is one thing to take out today, it is that our Christian attitude about this season should be sharply distinct from the attitude in society.
The world starts celebrating now. Thanksgiving wraps up. Black Friday arrives with furry. Shopping sprees, commercials galore, parties, and jubilation…The world turns up the noise. The Church becomes quiet. We deck our altar in purple, a sign of penitence. We turn off our televisions. We fast and pray. We are waiting.
Advent is a season of anticipation. If one scene describes the spirit of Advent, it is the scene of the ten virgins trimming their lamps. They wait for the bridegroom. In their hearts, they sing, “O Come, O Come.”
The Lutheran Martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once compared Advent to a prison cell. It was November 21, 1943. He preached against the evils of socialist Germany and was locked behind bars. There, with Advent in his heart, Bonhoeffer wrote a friend: “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent…One waits, hopes…the door is locked and can only be opened from outside…Advent is a season of waiting…a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.” Advent, Adventus in Latin (the ‘Coming’), is not merely a preparation for the Birth of Christ. It is a preparation for the Coming. What began in the manger is unfolding daily. The first coming is part of the second coming. Christmas is the season for the soul’s insatiable hunger for home.
“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven.
What are the stars that will fall from heaven? There is no reason not to take this as a literal prophecy. Perhaps, the stars really will fall and the heavens shake at Jesus’ second coming. However, the Church Fathers also suggest a symbolic meaning. The stars and sun represent our false gods: our technology, economy, consumerism, movie stars and celebrities. “But in comparison with the True Light,” says St. Jerome, “all things shall seem dark.” All our stuff, all our obsessions which glimmer and dazzle now, are nothing next to the Light of God. We have to choose now: what will we spend our lives adoring?
“The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Our conscience judges us. God gives us this time on earth to determine how we will spend our lives worshipping. What do we love most? For those who adore the world, God will give them the world and it will turn to dust. His appearance will be devastating. For those who worship God, God will give Himself. His Coming will be triumphant. Advent arrives, a season of fasting and quiet, to help us look within ourselves, so that we can focus our loves on the eternal things.
Why does Christmas music move us so much? We are foreigners in a foreign world. C. S. Lewis once wrote:
“A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought of the next…Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
I wish there were words to describe how we feel when we gaze at a Christmas tree. It takes us back to childhood, does it not? When we were babies, we goggled at the sparkling lights. We did not know what they meant, but we knew it was magical. As children, we felt the anticipation of the Christmas gifts, the banquet, and so much happiness. Each Christmas passes, and we gaze at the same Christmas lights, smell the same pine, and hear the same tunes. The magic of this season lifts us out of ordinary time, into another place: haunted anticipation for God.
No politics can rob us of the beauty of this season. No sickness or death or loss can dim the glory of Christmas. Advent comes and we are children once more, mesmerized by a glory that outshines all earthly glory. Christ is coming. Glorify Him.