Did you know that it is NOT Christmas… at least not yet? You wouldn’t know it from all the décor and Christmas music (or should that be muzak?) that is being piped through shopping malls and broadcast all over the airwaves. But it isn’t the Christmas season until December 25. Not liturgically anyway.
No, the Church is currently in the season of Advent, a season with an odd sort of tension to it. For the most part we have taken it to be a time of preparation, a time in which we build up towards the celebration of the incarnation of Jesus the Son, Second Person of the Trinity, on Christmas day. But Advent is also (and some would say primarily) the season in which we look forward to the return of the crucified and resurrected Christ, when the final redemption will take place and all wickedness will be brought to judgment.
Advent is therefore a season of anticipation. It is anticipation for both the beginning and the end of the story; the beginning and the end of the Christ Event. We anticipate the glorious celebration for both an historical event and for a future event.
This anticipation is best visualized in the ritual of lighting the candles of the Advent wreath.
Here we are in the dead of winter. The days are short and the nights are long. Often the skies are overcast and there is a definitive gloom and chilling darkness across the land. But on the first Sunday of Advent we light a candle. On the second Sunday we light two and so forth. As each new flame strengthens the light given off by the previous candle we are reminded of the coming of Christ, the light of the world, as though his light was the headlamp of a steaming locomotive charging ever closer through a darkened tunnel until it is at last upon us.
As the last candle is lit, our winter shifts and the days start to become longer while the nights shorten. Christ hasn’t yet returned, but the wonder of Christmas reminds us of a God who is and has always been active in human history, a God who we can trust to see his work through to completion. A God we can trust to return and be again Emmanuel, God with us.