At Thanksgiving time stands still in an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods kind of way. We need to slow down, look back, and let our souls catch up with the frenetic pace that our bodies orbit within. Perhaps that repose is why everyone seemed so happy last Sunday, our Thanksgiving Sunday. But so much shifts this Sunday, the first of Advent.
Advent is the story of grace, the grace of receiving a gift. Advent prepares us to receive the gift to end all gifts. It’s odd how consumerism prattles endlessly about our giving each other gifts at Christmas. It’s peculiar how we go on and on about how “the true spirit of Christmas is giving”. In a roundabout sense it is. But it’s God’s giving and our receiving.
Beginning this Sunday, we gather to celebrate the advent of a God who comes to us in order to give us what we cannot give ourselves, what we cannot give each other. That saving gift of God making us whole now and for all time is God’s freely to give. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. So the mood of Advent is an advanced state of receptivity.
I mean, I really enjoy things like the Dove Boxes at Christmas. Cecile and I took one and look forward to assembling a seasonal food kit to make a festive celebration for a family. But it would get us closer to the true spirit of Christmas if we were receiving them rather than giving them. Why? Because being in charge and in control is a bit too precious to us. When we are the givers, we are in charge and in control, unlike when our lives unravel.
Advent is about emptying our hands and our hearts of everything occupying them so we can receive the one thing needful. Advent is more about relinquishing efforts to achieve, to do, to make our mark in the world. Have you ever noticed how eager people in our church are to give when a typhoon hits the Philippines or a family finds itself in trouble? Compare that with how reluctant we are to receive when hit with ill fortune or tribulation. We are good at giving (prove me right with your pledges!), but not so good at receiving.
Advent really is an unusual challenge for hard-charging, achieving types like us. Unlike Joseph and Mary, we don’t have to pray to God for food, housing or clothing, all biblical concerns. We can solve most of our needs by opening our checkbooks. We’re go-getters!
But Advent speaks of a people whose need is so great, whose darkness is so very deep, whose emptiness is so vast, they turn their gaze heavenward, unable to help themselves. Their hope is not found in the closed circle that is the comings and goings of their lives.
That’s why we need Advent to prepare for Christmas. After all, we are mostly used to solving our problems by ourselves. We approach God with open hearts and open hands, marking our own neediness, not that of others. In Bethlehem, we kneel before God in Christ, to worship and receive the one gift around which every other gift gets arranged.
Advent puts achievement aside and puts the gift of God in Christ front and center. Deep, lasting real hope comes from the outside. So come, begin the journey with us on Sunday.