The first November I was here in Oxford County, I went to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. A gorgeous collection, I encourage you to check it out if you’re ever in the area. While I was there, I saw flyer for Russian Cultural Festival at a local Russian Orthodox Church, happening that very day I was there (even though it was a Tuesday), so of course I had to go.
The people were very kind and welcoming—perhaps hoping I was a potential new parishioner. While I was enjoying my meal of borscht and blintzes and Russian black bread and tea, they all became quite animated at the arrival of their new young priest.
“You have to meet him!” (at this point, no one knew that I, too, am a priest!) So they dragged me over and introduced me. I greeted him, commenting that I noticed he wasn’t eating any of the wonderful Russian cuisine.
He explained: he had begun his Advent fast.
ADVENT fast? But Advent doesn’t start for another three weeks! I responded. (That was the point at which I was ‘outed’ as a pastor) He explained to me that in his tradition, they fast for 45 days prior to Christmas. I listened and thought to myself that I was very glad to be a Christian in my own tradition. His Advent looked a lot like Lent to me.
Some people treat Advent as a ‘little Lent’ and there are similarities Both are a time of waiting and preparation that often leads to self-examination and repentance. Both often lead to a decision to make a new start, which is always a good thing.
But the waiting, during Advent, is different. Lent is more like hospice: we are waiting and watching for the death we know is coming at the end. Sure, we know that the death is followed by Resurrection, but it is a time that reminds us of our own mortality, nevertheless.
Advent is more like a pregnancy: preparing for the celebration of a birth. Granted, that baby was born two thousand years ago, so it’s more a memory of a pregnancy. A celebration of something that happened in the past—the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
I was thinking this week about how the birth of that one little baby changed the way we mark time. There are cultures that use a different calendar within their own systems, but the world runs on a calendar that marked that baby’s birth as Year One. (Now, yes, I know—they calculated wrong and Jesus was probably born 4 or 5 or 6 years earlier, but that’s not the point) We count our days differently because of Jesus, whether we follow him or not. Whether we even believe in him or not.
But Advent is also a season for preparing for something that is yet to come. The return of Christ. We don’t talk a lot about that part of the Creed—I think we all get a little uncomfortable with any talk of “end times.” This is that “Day of the Lord” idea I spoke about a few weeks ago—an expectation that everything will change in some sort of cosmic upheaval. In Advent, we aren’t just contemplating our own mortality, but the idea of a real end to time as we know it, when we’ll stop giving the year a number.
Something I read this week suggested there is a third aspect to our waiting and watching in Advent which stands between the looking back at Christ’s birth and the looking ahead for Christ’s return.
Advent invites us to watch for signs of Christ in the present moment. While everyone else is rushing along toward CHRISTMAS, CHRISTMAS, CHRISTMAS noooooow!!!! we are willing to take some time to think about what it is we are really waiting for. It gives us space to be quiet, and still, and consider what a difference that one life, death, resurrection makes for us. To light a candle this week, and another the next, and a third, and a fourth…to acknowledge that for most of us, awareness of the presence of God with us grows slowly, like the light from those candles.
It might be interesting to make Advent resolutions—it is our new year, after all. What if we all made a commitment to reflect on each day as it comes? Ask ourselves: How did I experience the presence of God today? How did I live in a way that celebrates today as the Feast of the Incarnation, the Feast of the Resurrection…as the Day of the Lord?
I’ll confess, I’ve already been listening to Christmas music. I have even already opened a Christmas present! (with the permission of the sender—although we all know I would have opened it anyway) So I’d be a hypocrite if I said you had to hold off on all Christmas celebrations until after dark on December 24. We don’t have to fast while everyone else is feasting, just because of the calendar. Advent is an invitation to be counter-cultural. It reminds us that new life takes time and we all prepare for it on our way.
I invite you to find a way to observe Advent over the next four weeks. But be gentle with yourselves; don’t add to the stress. Light a candle and sit quietly in its glow for five minutes, taking a break from all the pressure we put on ourselves in this month of December. Read through the words of an Advent hymn—or sing it! Try to learn it, so that when you’re sick to death of fa-la-la-la-las and red-nosed reindeer, you have something to replace them with. Cut yourself some slack, ease up on trying to have a picture-perfect Christmas.
God is far more interested in how you allow the love of Christ to shine through your broken places. Jesus shows up in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected moments, reminding us that every day is an opportunity for Christ to be born anew.
Blessed Advent to all.