The (tragically) little-known author William Stringfellow, one of the most insightful and prophetic Christian writers of the 20th Century, wrote the following about his experience of Advent and Christmas in 1970's America:
"We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed. The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent. But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent. This situation cannot be blamed merely upon preachers... any more than it can be said, simplistically, to be mainly the fault of American merchandising and consumerism.
I am certainly not talking about getting 'back to God' or 'putting Christ back into Christmas'... Instead I am concerned with a single, straightforward question in biblical context, What is the subject of Advent?"
I find this to be a very provocative question. What, indeed, is the meaning of Advent? Or, to put it another way: what is Advent for?
Stringfellow's words can no doubt apply to just about any modern western nation, but what about his critique of the church? Have we forgotten what it means to proclaim the Advent of Christ? Have we indeed become so utterly secularised that we might be shocked to discover what the topic of Advent actually is? And what is that?
Consider for a moment the preaching of John the Baptist, who was called the forerunner to the Messiah. The Baptist's role features large during Advent, and this is because Advent isn't simply about preparing for the birth of Christ, but also about preparing ourselves for his ministry, for what his birth means: Look! God has come into the world! To do what? To seek and save the lost, yes, but more importantly: to establish God's Kingdom on earth.
This is what John the Baptist preached: "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." This was both a promise and a warning. In other words, caution: God is about to appear among us, and when He does there will be a reckoning. "The axe is ready to strike at the root of the tree." For some the brith of Christ really does mean peace, joy, and goodwill, for others it is judgement, because in Christ God has come to set things right, to establish justice and righteousness upon the earth.
One of the most important passages of the Bible traditionally invoked during Advent, Luke 1:52-54, the Magnificat of Mary, draws out these themes quite clearly:
He has pulled down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted those of low estate;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
In the Advent, Christ the Lord comes into the world to seek and save the lost. Hallelujah! In the Advent, Christ the Lord also comes as judge of the world and of all the world’s thrones and powers, sovereignties and dominions, principalities and authorities, presidencies and regimes. In the season of Advent, we remember and look to the God who is remaking the world in His image. Stringfellow says, "This is the truth, which the world hates, but which repentant people trust, and by which they live as the people of God in the world."
The question I am contemplating this Advent season, as I prepare myself to celebrate Jesus' birth and ministry this Christmas, flows directly from the challenge of Mary's Magnificat: am I one of the proud and the powerful? Am I one of rich and satisfied? Jesus gave us a clear invitation (and warning!) through his preaching, picking up where the Baptist left off:
"'The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’" (Mark 1:15)
The dawning of the kingdom of God is the topic of Advent, and the way we enter into that reality is through humility and repentance. So this Advent I want to search my life and recognise the places where I have domesticated Advent and Christmas, been complicit in what Stringfellow calls the "vanishment of Advent" because I have become too secularised. It is my prayer that I would learn to appreciate once again both the dangerous and beautiful reality that the Advent of Christ has unleashed into the world: the Kingdom of God.
(P.S. follow up Santa Claus post coming soon!)