If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:10)
Christmas 1975 was memorable for Pat and me. Married in July we were excitedly looking forward to our first Christmas together. Our home at the time was a small cabin on fifty acres in rural Maine, isolated from our nearest neighbors at the end of a gravel road. Despite our “land wealth,” such as it was, we were dirt poor. Living on a teacher’s salary of $8000 annually, our budget was tighter than the Grinch’s heart. Pat handled all of the food and household shopping, which she frugally managed on a budget of $25/week. A lot of forethought went into the preparation of Christmas cookies. Starting in November, she would buy ingredients week by week as our money allowed: now sugar, now dates, now chocolate chips – all to prepare for our first Christmas. The tree was much easier (and cheaper) as we simply cut a small evergreen growing on our overgrown farmland. A highlight of our preparation that first Christmas was shopping for presents. One Friday night we drove forty miles to the Sears store in Bangor where we browsed the aisles giving ideas to each other – Pat’s focus being clothing and mine tools. We then separated to purchase from the identified suggestions. And so, we had our Christmas cookies, Christmas tree, and Christmas presents. Add to this a few Christmas lights, decorations, and music albums, and we were comfortably prepared for Christmas day. Or so we thought.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, and bitterly cold – zero degrees. I had built our little cabin on a grid work of cinderblocks, creating a narrow crawlspace underneath. This space was blocked from the winter winds by a plywood skirt around the perimeter, which I supposed would keep the plumbing in the crawlspace from freezing. Unfortunately, what I had imagined as a protective barrier was inadequate against the cold of a Maine winter. This we discovered when we rolled out of our warm bed that Christmas morning and climbed down from the overhead loft where we slept. Turning on the kitchen faucet we were greeted with the sound of silence, that is, the sound of nothing. The cabin pipes were frozen. So rather than a sedate rising, sumptuous breakfast, and sharing of presents, we spent the morning slowly thawing pipes, sealing defenses of the cabin crawlspace, and stuffing insulation wherever we perceived a vulnerability. Through it all we learned a valuable lesson about living in that northern clime – always be prepared for extreme weather.
Being prepared for a Maine winter is a lifesaving necessity. Although Pat and I were prepared for the arrival of Christmas in 1975, we were unprepared for the arrival of artic temperatures. The principle of being prepared for exigencies in our day-to-day lives is commonsense; we ignore it at our peril. It is a principle that applies as well to our spiritual journey. For followers of Jesus, it is the season leading up to Christmas where we are invited to deeper reflection on being prepared. I am referring of course to Advent.
Now I confess that for many years I had a superficial understanding of Advent. The Lutheran church I attended as a child had an Advent candle lighting each Sunday in the month leading up to Christmas. And every year around Thanksgiving, I received an Advent calendar for December – a Christmas scene on lightweight cardboard with 25 numbered cutout windows, one each to be found and opened on the appropriate day. I suppose the idea was to keep a young child’s attention focused on the coming Christmas day, although I don’t remember needing any help counting the days. As I gradually outgrew churches and calendars, Advent lost any distinctive for me. When I “discovered” church again after a thirty-five year hiatus, I was a surprised that Advent was barely mentioned in the Evangelical church I attended. Yes, there were years when there was a gathering of families to make Advent wreaths, but otherwise it was seldom discussed.
Fortunately, many Christians, particularly those in liturgical churches, have kept the candles of Advent burning, so to speak. For these Christians, Advent is recognized and celebrated as a time of preparation. The word “Advent” means coming, and most traditions of Advent recognize and embrace two comings of Jesus – His First Coming on Christmas Day and His Second Coming at the end of the age. Dennis Bratcher writes, “The focus of Advent is preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. … In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. That acknowledgment provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live “between the times” and are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people. So, as the church celebrates God’s in-breaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which “all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption,” it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Interest in Advent seems to be on the rise with many Evangelicals. For some, this is a reaction to the commercialization of Christmas and a desire to “put Christ back into Christmas.” For others, this is a weariness with Christmas pageants and manger scenes. And for others, this is a desire to go deeper in the spiritual life – particularly during a season so foundational to our faith – the incarnation of God. It is not a rejection of Christmas, but rather a longing for something more. And what many are discovering is that the way forward is by returning to the historical roots of Advent. A way that includes preparing not just for Christmas but for the Second Advent and the return of the King.
In many ways the pursuit of virtue is a matter of preparing for the Second Coming. Jesus’s words about the end times and his return are recorded in the first part of Matthew 24. His description of how we are to prepare for his return is recorded in the second part of Matthew 24 where he tells us to “keep watch” (24:42); “be ready” (24:44); and to “give … food” to his servants (24:45). And then in Matthew 25, he illustrates with three parables: The Ten Virgins, Investment of Talents, and The Sheep and Goats – describing various aspects of being prepared for his return.
In the parable of the sheep and goats Jesus makes it clear that we prepare for his Second Coming by caring for those in greatest need. I always find his words challenging. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
I have a friend, Dave, who is preparing for the Second Coming. Dave is an ornery looking dude, with a scruffy beard and slow, deep-throated drawl rooted in the hills of Kentucky. However, beneath this gruff exterior lies a tender heart. You see, Dave runs a small food pantry in a poor inner-city neighborhood in Dayton. He hustles for food and keeps the pantry shipshape for its weekly distribution. The clientele are the poorest of the poor and many of them depend on this out-of-the-way food pantry in an abandoned church building to get them through the week. Dave is generous to all, but nowhere is his heart revealed more than when he speaks of the young children who come in with their parents. Dave likes nothing better than to give out candy to the little ones, and indeed his eyes tear up when whenever he speaks of them. I doubt that as they are caring for the poor Dave and the other volunteers think they are caring for Jesus, but this is precisely Jesus’ point. The deepest truth about the kingdom of God is doing his will, which is revealed in how we love others.
Advent is a season of preparation – one that promises a banquet overflowing with hope, peace, joy, and love. When we prepare for Christmas Day we sniff its aroma. When we prepare for the return of the King we feast on its abundance.