Time to get out the boxes with the special decorations, each one with its own story and all of them together part of the bigger story. It’s time to deck the halls, to fill the home with light and music. It’s time to dig out recipes and to bake. It’s time to prepare.
I loved Christmas as a kid. I still do. What I didn’t realize for years, though, was how much I loved Advent. I loved all the preparation. I loved the anticipation. I loved the way the house looked when it was all decorated. I loved the way the kitchen smelled when it was full of baking and roasting. I loved how everyone, even though they were a bit frazzled, still managed to be in a pretty cheery mood.
I love the honesty of Advent. I love the sense of longing in the texts and prayers. “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” And yes, Christ has already come to us, but no, Christ has not yet returned, and we surely do feel sometimes like he’s overdue. There is an honest yearning for things to be better, especially in this year when everything has been scrambled and turned sideways by the pandemic. “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah shouts for us. We’re in over our heads. “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved!” the Psalmist cries out for us. But we also hear, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Every valley will be lifted up. Every mountain and hill made low. The uneven ground shall be made level and the rough places a plain.” Things will be smoother. Something better, something brighter is coming. Help is on the way. A new day will dawn.
I love the way Advent, if we pay attention to it, sets the scene for Christmas by reminding us that we are not the first ones to live in a time of shadows hoping for light. “During the rule of King Herod of Judea…” we read in the first chapter of Luke. This is the same King Herod who, in Matthew’s gospel, murdered all the male babies in Bethlehem under age two. This is the Herod who killed two of his own sons because he suspected them of plotting against him, the Herod who killed his wife Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, along with her brother and her mother. This is the Herod who replaced the High Priest in the temple with a Sadducee who would be more inclined to do things the way he wanted them done. This is the same Herod who, according to Josephus, as he lay dying, ordered that one member of every family in Judea should be slain so that the whole country would be in mourning when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but the people never forgot that it had been issued.
This is the time, Luke reminds us, when Quirinius is appointed legate of the expanded Roman province of Syria with the specific mandate to carry out a census, something forbidden by Jewish law, so that Tiberius can impose a new tax. This is a time when Rome’s domination of Judea is iron-clad and iron-fisted with no velvet glove to make it less harsh. This is a time when work is hard, taxes are heavy, and freedom is limited.
But this is also the time when an angel appears to an aged childless couple, Elizabeth, whose name means “God keeps promises” and to Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers.” The angel promises them that they will have a child and that they are to name him Yochanan, John, which means “God is gracious,” and that many will rejoice because of him and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
This is the time when a kinswoman comes to visit Elizabeth, a young, unmarried kinswoman named Mary, who is also pregnant with a miraculous child. And when Elizabeth sees her, her unborn child leaps in her womb. This is the time when Mary sings a prophetic song of joy and rebellion that has been bringing hope to people on the margins for two thousand years. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”
This is the time to sit with the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. This is the time to remember. And to look forward. This is Advent. And soon, Christmas.
The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.