Nativity scene made of ice is seen in Graz, Austria, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. The nativity scene is hand-made by the ice sculptor Gert J. Hoedl and his international team. They have been doing it for the start of Advent every year since 1996, with variations in details, and claim it’s the biggest one in the world.
Hope is in short supply today. Yes, the latest unemployment numbers are a bit better and the Dow has been up recently, but I haven’t seen any massive outbreak of hope. Have you?
A new dawn of hope doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, either. Our national debt has grown so large that it’s almost incomprehensible. The European economy is more messed up than ours. The vaunted Arab Spring is looking more and more like a stepping stone for the advance of Islamist regimes, thus further destabilizing the Middle East. Iran will soon have the capacity to build nuclear weapons. Not much hope here.
In the last presidential election, we heard a lot about hope from candidate Obama. This time around, I doubt we’ll hear much of this from President Obama, or from his Republican rival either. Hope doesn’t play well in Peoria, or anywhere else for that matter.
What should we do when hope disappears? For millions of Americans in this season, the answer is simple: Shop! Black Friday boasted record numbers of shoppers as we Americans spent our way into the Christmas spirit. Why would so many people empty their wallets — or, more likely, run up their credit cards –in the midst of a bleak economy? According to a senior executive at Moody’s Investor’s service, “With consumers, it’s emotional, so they might feel they need Christmas this year.”
I’d like to suggest another possibility. Perhaps we need Advent this year. Why? Because Advent takes seriously the fact that our lives are not as they should be. Advent acknowledges that we need serious help. Advent promises that such help is on the way. Thus, Advent gives us a reason for hope.
What I’ve just said about Advent might be perplexing because, for most of us, Advent is only a blip on our seasonal radar. We might have an Advent calendar in our homes, with little doors that hide tiny treasures. Or we might hear about Advent in church, but mostly as a season to prepare for Christmas. Indeed, Advent is about getting ready to welcome the one born in a stable and laid in a manger. But we do this, in part, by paying attention to the pain in our lives and in our world. We acknowledge our need for a savior. We recognize that we need God’s help, not only to mend our lives, but also to put the world back together.
The Christian season of Advent remembers the first advent of Christ (from the Latin word adventus, for “coming” or “visit”). It helps us get ready to celebrate the birth of the savior who brings “peace on earth.” Yet Advent is also a time to remember that our world isn’t fully saved. Christians look forward to the second advent of Christ, when he restores the kingdom of God, when God’s justice and peace fill the earth.
In Advent, we renew our hope in the coming of God’s kingdom. Advent hope is not quite like ordinary hope, however. If I say, “I hope it snows tonight,” I usually mean, “I’d really like it to snow, and just maybe it will snow, but, really, I know it probably isn’t going to snow.” Hope often yearns in spite of evidence to the contrary. Advent hope, however, is more like a settled, confident conviction about the future. It is based on confidence in the God who did once come us as Jesus, and who will indeed come again to establish his kingdom. The season of Advent helps us wait for the next advent of Christ, and to do so with patience and joy.
Advent hope is fueled, not just by faith, but also by the traditions of the season. For example, during Advent, millions of Christians use a wreath with candles – the Advent wreath – to focus their attention and kindle their hope. As we light the candles around the wreath, we remember just how much we need God’s help and we rejoice because God has helped us in the past and will help us in the future.
Advent hope does not mean, however, that we simply sit around until God comes and mends our broken world. On the contrary, our experience of hope energizes us to live today as agents of the kingdom of God. Recognizing that human efforts will not make the kingdom come – that’s God’s business – we nevertheless strive to live according to kingdom values. Thus, Advent helps us to love others, to give generously, to seek justice, and to live hopefully each day.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is Senior Advisor and Theologian in Residence of Foundations for Laity Renewal. He is the author of Discovering Advent, an ebook from the Patheos Press.