Reflections on anticipation for the first Sunday of Advent
In the centuries leading up to the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem Israel was looking for a Messiah, a Son of David, who would usher in an age of peace and liberty from oppression. Their father Abraham had been promised land and posterity two millenia earlier, and the family that became a nation occupied the land for most of that time but, except for a few brief periods, never entirely free of at least the threat of imminent oppression. If it wasn’t slavery in Egypt, where they had gone to find relief from famine, it was the Canaanites and Philistines taking their crops. When they survived the Philistines the Assyrians threatened and finally took the northern tribes into captivity. Babylon eventually crushed the Assyrian domination but carried the remnant of Judah that the Assyrians had left, into Exile far beyond the River that had marked Abraham’s early home. Seventy years later the Babylonians allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their cities, their homes, farms, and reinstitute worship in the restored temple that had originally been built by Solomon. This was a positive development but still, they were never really free. They enjoyed periods of relative freedom but only to the point their overlords deemed appropriate. They were looking for a Messiah to come and restore the peace and liberty for which they had yearned for so many generations.
Yearning is not unfamiliar to us. We too, find ourselves frequently, if not constantly, longing for things that seem just beyond our reach. More time for work, more time for leisure, more money, more relationships, and we yearn for more fulfilment out of the relationships we have. We soon learn to discount even those rare occasions when we do experience moments of sweet satisfaction as fleeting apparitions that are as substantial as a passing breeze. Is this how we were meant to be? Always striving but never arriving? Always wanting more though commonly finding ourselves unable to ascertain precisely what it is that drives our insatiable hunger?
G K Chesterton said “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” We experience powerful desires that threaten to overwhelm us because we do not recognize the true nature of these desires. We think we want more money, faster cars, exotic cuisine, finer wine, more love, warmer winters, when what we really want is more of God. In their proper place all of these can be enjoyed as experiences of conversation with God, but pursued as an end in themselves they all become vanities, provocative sirens that lure us to shipwreck.
Advent is a season of anticipation. In our younger years, before we learn to obscure our raw desires to get stuff, we oh so eagerly anticipate Christmas morning - what presents lie under the tree for us this year? What will Santa (or our parents, for those of us who have already been cruelly disillusioned regarding the real source of Christmas presents) bring us this year that can catapult us into paroxysms of euphoria that exceed those experienced last year? Now those of us who have learned to suppress those lusts, in favor of desires more becoming to people of advanced maturity, anticipate good times with family and friends. We look for good food, good parties, a few days in which to put aside for a while the tedium of the mundane routines that rule our lives. We hope to capture, if only for a while, something that eludes us the rest of the year. Some of us learn to fear that the hope of Christmas is in fact only another smoke and mirrors charade and so we begin to dread the hustle. If the exuberance of Christmas is only a busyness that passes and leaves us more drained than we were before, then the whole charade becomes a tedium worse than the humdrum from which it pretended to promise relief.
And yet the yearning remains. In fact, the yearning is only aggravated by the realization that what we were told was to be the ultimate cure is only another fairy tale, and there is really nothing more. There is only the inexorable routines of life from which there is no escape. As long as the pretense of respite is empty we would rather not bother with the effort required to maintain the frenetic pace of the holiday season. If our ultimate hope is vanity, then there is, in fact, no hope at all. And so you have suicides peaking at the very time of the year that society at large portrays as, and takes to be, the merriest time of all, a time of good will and cheer for all the world.
Anticipation. It is an opportunity for hope, but hope that turns out to have been misguided only exacerbates the agony of despair. So what is the anticipation of Christmas? Do we anticipate more than the giving and receiving of things and, if we are lucky, relationships? Is Christmas just a grand orgy of an economic enterprise in which even relationships are reduced to economy of exchange? Is Christmas just about giving as good as you think you’ll get and hoping to break even?
We certainly claim more. We say that we commemorate the coming of the Christ Child. We commemorate nothing less than God becoming flesh. We tend to emphasize the commemoration of a past event, but it is no less the anticipation of a future event. It is a celebration of God moving into the neighborhood and making his dwelling with us, but it is also an anticipation of a new visitation every year. At least I think it should be.
When I was growing up I remember hearing time after time that Jesus is all you need. Once you find God you have everything you need. If you are not satisfied then the fault somehow lies with you because you can never need anything more than God. Proof was found in proof texts, like John 4:13,14 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” You can’t argue with scripture, right? But what happens to anticipation if this is a one time event that satisfies forever? Does this not bring us back full circle to the agony of despair engendered by the promise of an ultimate hope that fails to deliver? Are those who promise everlasting satisfaction wrong? Possibly. Was Jesus wrong? Probably not. I do not think Jesus was wrong, though I do think he can be misunderstood, sometimes far too easily.
One of the most urgent human necessities is the need for hope. Your current situation matters less than your hope for tomorrow. Laying in the sun on a tropical beach in January is fine, but if you do not have some sense of anticipation even such a realized fantasy becomes a tedium far too quickly. On the other hand, even the most traumatic events of life are lightened by the promise contained in the hope of a better day to come. It is hopelessness of an ever diminishing future that is the cruelest torture of all. We cannot find satisfaction only in our past, we must have something in our future that draws us onward. We cannot be satisfied and fulfilled solely on the strength of an historical event. We need room to anticipate a hope for our future. I do not believe that we can find God –or even have God find us– once and be set for life forever. We need new and non-identical repetitions of God discovery on our journey. We cannot be satisfied with a one time God pill because we need a new fix every year, every day, every hour.
My suspicion is that the talk about God being all you need is a thinly disguised religious veneer for a crass individualism that tells us we need to be self-sufficient. The fact is that while God may be all you ever need, you will never have enough of God because you will never be big enough to carry enough of God. So this Advent season we anticipate a commemoration, but we also anticipate a new visitation. Dare we anticipate not only a visitation, but a new experience of an incarnation? I am not suggesting that God will take on flesh again in exactly the same way he did 2000 years ago, but do we not anticipate that Christmas will happen again in our time? Are we just looking back at Christmas past or are we also looking forward to Christmas again? And what does it mean to look forward to Christmas again?
Let’s take another look at what Jesus said. “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” The water He gives, he said, would be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life. This is not drink once and be forever satisfied. This is start drinking and you can never stop because the water keeps gushing. This is not a pill to make you feel alive, this is life that makes you be alive. God did not merely become flesh for a short visit so we could remember that He once was here. Jesus took on flesh and blood, not for a short time on earth, but he bears the scars of the crucifixion because He is still God in the flesh.
It is noteworthy that the woman at the well, speaking to the Messiah, yearned for the Messiah. John 4:26-26“The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
There she is, conversing with the Messiah face to face, and wishing Messiah was there to explain everything. How often do we find ourselves knocking on the door of the brothel, looking for God, when He has been walking with us all the way? This Christmas may we celebrate with anticipation, but may we never allow our anticipation to blind us to the Christ who is already here.