My church is something of an anomaly. We’re a Baptist church that follows the church calendar and observes the seasons of the church year. Our denomination as a whole is not usually liturgically minded, but it’s one of my favorite things about our congregation: We run on our own calendar, distinct from what the rest of the (Baptist) world is doing. The church runs on its own schedule and in its own time.
Although most Baptists don’t use a formal liturgy like my church, there’s one season on the church calendar that nearly all of us celebrate, and it began last Sunday, Nov. 27. When November draws to a close, most churches enter a time markedly different from the rest of the year. In the days leading up to the fifth Sunday before Christmas, sanctuaries change colors, music ministers open up new songbooks and preachers prepare to preach from a specific selection of texts and themes. When Advent arrives, something changes in church life.
The word “Advent” literally means “coming toward.” Advent actually is the story of two comings. We remember the first time God came to Earth in the person of Jesus in anticipation of the next time he will come near. Thus, our celebrations of Advent are multi-layered. Seeing the baby in the manger, we consider the next time we will see Christ. Hearing about the joy of those who first heard the announcement God had entered the world, we look forward to the joy we will feel when we experience this firsthand.
If ever a year needed an Advent, it’s 2016. This year has seen so much chaos and suffering, it’s hard to keep track of it all. The Zika virus, the global refugee crisis, the deadliest hurricane season in more than a decade, one of the most contentious presidential election cycles in American history, and so on. The feeling of disappointment with this year was perhaps best displayed by comedian John Oliver, who ended his third season by literally setting “2016” on fire. In a year of constant and fierce division, one thing has been agreeable to everyone: 2016 has been hard.
In the context of such a difficult year for so many, the message of Advent is even more pertinent. To observe Advent is to remember what God has done in anticipation of what God will do. As we see Hurricane Matthew devastating our brothers and sisters in Haiti, we long for a better world. When deep fissures are created in family relationships over political issues, we feel there must be a better way. In Advent, we remember God cared so much about much about our suffering that he entered into history to suffer alongside us and undo the evil we brought into the world through sin.
God with us
When Matthew sought to communicate in his Gospel just what happened in that stable in Bethlehem, he used a Hebrew word, Emmanuel, “God with us.” Although God always was with his people, in Christ, God became “God with us” in a new and unimaginable way that altered the course of history and the destiny of the world. Christ began a work in the world that he promises to bring to a completion himself.
As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now and not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8:22-24).
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This year has been hard. For that reason, we should recapture what Advent meant to the first Christians who celebrated it. As we change out the colors and the decorations in our sanctuaries, and as we swap out the décor in our homes, let us remember why we do these things: They remind us of God’s first entrance into the world and help us anticipate the second.
In 2016, let us remember the prayer of the anonymous hymnist centuries ago:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.