I LOVE this time of year. I somehow managed to avoid the humbug gene in my family, and I croon over lights and decorations, insist on a tree, and hum seasonal tunes with abandon. I have a strong stomach for exorbitant amounts of ginger cookies and schmaltz (often in the form of a steady stream of bad Hallmark Christmas movies), and I’m annoyed when the grocery store checkout line moves too quickly and interrupts my Christmas-magazine reading. This weekend, I’ll host a Christmas dinner party with my even-more-holiday-spirited boyfriend—it’s the event of the season, y’all—and we’ve spent the past weeks planning, gathering materials, and decorating. We have four trees between our two apartments, and it’s fantastic.
Reading that, you might be moved to lump me into the Warring-on-Advent faction. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong—I definitely cheat, letting Christmas sneak into Advent (and, let’s be honest, the tail end of Ordinary Time). The thing is, Advent is really one of my very favorite parts of the liturgical year, and I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Christmas without it.
I love the way Advent meshes with the changing seasons in my Northern-Hemisphere home. The air takes on a crisp chill and the scent of snow. Dark comes early and the nights are the longest of the year. Perhaps that’s why I love the candles and Christmas lights so much—would I have the same appreciation in the long, lazy, sizzling summer nights? I somehow doubt it.
I also love Advent in church. Even before I become an Episcopalian and liturgical seasons became more serious than the calendar wheel in children’s worship, the churches I attended marked Advent, usually with candle-lighting. I love the big, iron Advent wreath hanging from the ceiling at my current parish, and the intricate, Sarum-blue vestments. I love the music—“O come, O come Emmanuel” has long been my favorite, but there’s “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come.”
I’ll give you a hint: Amy kicked us off on Advent 1. Advent is about calling “Come” to the Messiah. The name itself comes from the Latin for arrival, and that’s still how we use lower-case-a advent. At the same time, Advent reminds us of the coming of Christ at Christmas, the incarnation, and of the second coming of Christ and the already-not-yet world we live in (see Sabrina’s latest).
And each year, when I think about this, I go back to a text from undergrad, Postmodernism: a Beginner’s Guide, by Notre Dame English professor/poet Kevin Hart (Thanks, Dr. Felch). This book remains the most hospitable introduction to postmodernism I’ve encountered in six and a half years of higher education, but especially interesting (I think) are its chapters on the postmodern Bible and postmodern religion.
One Derrida-channeling section deals with the expectations and complications of an event. Hart writes, “There is no such thing as an event that we can fully know in advance…So when I call ‘Come’ to an event, it is always possible for the unexpected to occur.” Hart turns this idea to calling “Come” to the Messiah. I’ve learned my share about good writing and about plagiarism, and I was taught to use long quotations sparingly, but I really think it’s necessary to pull out a full chunk of Hart’s text, because I think what he says here is really important, and I don’t want to risk muddling it with paraphrase:
If a Christian prays “Come” to Jesus, as we are enjoined to do, then we should be aware of what we are doing. It is important for use to mark the otherness of Jesus Christ, not to believe that we already fully know who he is. No one who reads the New Testament has the right to think that the Jesus variously represented there is altogether given to us in the order of knowledge. We pray with a deep trust that God does not deceive us, yet we need to remember that our prayer is addressed to a transcendent deity whose otherness is not to be reduced. Even the most vigilant Christian succumbs from time to time to accommodating God to a preferred image of him, and it is salutary to be reminded that when we call “Come” we are perhaps calling a Savior who will shatter the image of him that we have so carefully constructed.
When we call “Come,” as we do in Advent, we are not calling someone or something we know—or are capable of knowing—fully in advance. The anticipation of Advent may be joy-filled, but the radical implications of the season are neither safe nor comfortable. To pray “Come” to Christ (in a song, in a work of art, in an act of justice, in whatever form) just might be the most dangerous and the most important action a Christian can take.
I’ll close with another author who I think expresses this tension and risk—here’s the first stanza of an Advent poem from Madeleine L’Engle’s book, The Irrational Season:
Come, Lord Jesus! Do I dare
Cry: Lord Jesus, quickly come!
Flash the lightning in the air,
Crash the thunder on my home!
Should I speak this aweful prayer?
Come, Lord Jesus, help me dare.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.