“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
According to the common calendar of the Western Church, today (28 November 2010) is the First Sunday of Advent. The term “advent,” comes from the Latin adventus and means “coming,” or “arrival.” It was used by the Latin Fathers of the early Church to translate the Greek word παρουσια (parousia) which, in both the New Testament and the early Greek Fathers was used to refer to the “Return” or “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ at the end of Age. (I use quotation marks around the common terms “Return of Christ” or “Second Coming of Christ,” because, of course, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ is not absent but present in, with, and to the Church Universal, the individual Christian, and each gathered community of believers. The term refers to the promised Bodily Return of the Risen Christ.) The early church celebrated Advent not only as preparation for Christmas (originally “Christ’s Mass,” the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ), but as hope for the Second Advent as well. They saw deep connections between the longing of Exilic and Post-Exilic Jews for the coming of the Messiah and the Christian longing for Christ’s parousia (after all, Christians believed–and still believe–that Jesus of Nazareth was/is the promised Messiah/Christ/Anointed One of messianic Jewish hopes).
As such, Advent expresses moods of yearning for the future (out of full awareness of the pain and suffering of the present) with that of anticipation, hope, peace, joy, and love. In much of contemporary Christian life, however, especially in the U.S., the connection of Advent with the Second Advent has been severed. The Christian groups whose liturgies make much of Advent usually want nothing to do with groups which have an obsession over eschatology (“last things”)–especially since the latter groups are often dominated by Dispensationalist theologies–the Hal Lindsey books, the Scofield Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, the horrid Left Behind novels (with bizarre fantasies of Christian commandos and Christian death squads!), opposition to peacemaking and the United Nations, and “Christian Zionism” which blindly supports the modern, secular nation of Israel with a belief that it can do no wrong no matter how it abuses the human rights of Palestinians–Christian as well as Muslim. But if Advent is only a preparation to celebrate the Incarnation, it can simply be a memorial service and the church can lose the living hope for an Ultimate Salvation that closes out the story of history. As one deeply influenced by Moltmann’s theology of hope, I find such a prospect disturbing.
Is there a way to reconnect Advent and Second Advent without the baggage of the “prophecy charts,” date calculators and all the rest? I hope so and believe so.
Advent should be a liturgical sign of the counter-cultural nature of the life of the Church. The Church prepares for Christmas by remembering the sufferings of Israel as Israel awaited the Coming of the Promised One–and it reflects on the sufferings of the Church and the World as we await parousia of Christ and the God who is always Coming, always meeting us from the future. The world (contemporary culture–including the world that has taken up residence in the Church) prepares for Christmas with an orgy of consumerist greed, debt, excess, opulence. The world prepares to celebrate the birth of a Child from a poor family (who were at least temporarily homeless) by doing everything it can to ignore the poor–or make them ashamed of their poverty and want. The world prepares to celebrate the Prince of Peace by making more war–or sending greetings and Christmas dinners to the military personnel that, at least in the lower ranks, are the pawns of said war. And the wars and the greed are DEEPLY connected.
And so the Church needs Advent to help resist the corrupting influence of the World. (I use the term “world” here not to refer to the earth, nature, or the inhabited world that “God so loved,” but, as the Johannine Writings usually do, to refer to the System that opposes all that is of God: military and economic empire. Walter Wink has rightly called this the “Domination System.”) In resistance to “Black Friday,” we need “Buy Nothing Day.” And we need to find alternative ways of preparing for Christmas than mindless consumerism–we need to Reclaim Christmas and redirect our assets to serving the poor, the marginalized and oppressed. (In the coming days, I’ll describe practices from my congregation and others to help focus Advent and Christmas as Christian rather than pagan [worldly, imperial, consumerist] holidays.)
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all humankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.