The weeks leading up to Christmas brought an overwhelming spirit of anticipation to our household when I was growing up. In fact, the intensity of waiting to open our gifts on Christmas morn was too much for my brother and me to bear.
Every December we searched our house high and low looking for our presents and every year my father’s hiding places became more creative and obscure. One year he removed the nails from one of the corners of a wood panel wall in our basement and stashed the gifts inside the wall. It took many hours of relentlessly exploring every nook and cranny of our house till we finally noticed the missing nails. I reached in behind the loose panel and pulled out the bag of treasure, delighted to discover that our parents had purchased the video game we’d begged them for.
That Christmas morning we unwrapped the video game and pretended to be surprised and elated. We installed the cartridge into our Atari game console and much to our surprise—and dismay—our names immediately popped up on the TV screen along with our high scores. You see, we’d been playing the game in secret since we’d found it.
I’ll never forget Dad’s face as his confusion morphed into a look of realization and disappointment. That was the last year he stored Christmas presents at our house.
This story contains all the elements of the Advent experience for most Christians: expectation, pretending and disappointment.
Churches work hard to creatively recapture the agonizing longing of the Jewish people in the first century who waited for their long-expected Messiah. Yet it is difficult to authentically share in this expectation of Christ’s arrival. At least it is for me. Some Christians focus on the second coming of Jesus to inspire such longing, but for whatever reason this doesn’t rouse within me the ancient Advent cry: “How long, O Lord, must we wait?” Perhaps my life is too comfortable for such sentiment.
For some of us, Advent feels like pretending. Like my brother and me preparing to be surprised at Christmas presents we’d already been playing with for weeks, Advent can feel disingenuous as we strive to long for and be surprised by something we’ve already received.
For others, Christmas comes and goes, year after year, bringing only more of the same. The climax of Advent is a disappointment, a recurring letdown set to the soundtrack of Bono from U2 singing, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”
In spite of all this, I’ve come to appreciate how significant the season of Advent is to my spiritual journey. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Our whole life . . . is Advent . . . a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth . . . when all people are brothers and sisters and one.”
Advent so powerfully captures the reality of existence and the paradoxical tension between the kingdom of God being “already but not yet” here. It embodies both our gratitude for God’s shalom in our midst and our longing for God’s shalom to come. Advent is life.
For a long time I understood Advent to be a celebration of the past and hope for the future. However, Advent is now about the present moment for me. It calls me to train my eyes and ears to be prepared for Christ’s arrival today. My Advent prayer is no longer, “Come Lord Jesus,” but, instead, “Help me to notice when you come today, Lord Jesus.”
He told me in Matthew 25 where to look: “I will come to you as a single mother and child in need of food. I will come to you as a first nation community in need of clean drinking water. I will come to you as a homeless teenager in need of clothes and shelter. I will come to you as a man in prison and a lonely elderly woman shut in her apartment. I will come to you as a foreign refugee family. I will come to you in need, Christmas day and every day. And I tell you the truth, whatever you do for these brothers and sisters of mine, no matter how unimpor-tant they seem, you do for me.”
Advent reminds me the coming of Christ is always a surprise I’m likely to miss if I’m not prepared. Yet if I hunt for Christ the way I did for the presents my Dad hid in the wall so many years ago, I will probably find him.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is slowly learning to practise what he preaches.