The most counter cultural thing a Christian can do today is to refuse the drive to Christmas. If you watched the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, Santa came riding in at the end of the parade with the bold symbolic statement that Christmas has come. The commercialization of Christmas is obvious. “Santa has come, the Christmas season is here, so come shop with us.”
The last thing our culture wants to do in this season is wait. We don’t want to hear about voices crying out in the wilderness, of a young woman wrestling with what the child she carries means for her and the world, or even about some long off time when Christ will come again. With all the decorations and advertisements we are collectively saying “Get on it with it.” Just like a child unable to control the excitement, who treasure hunts around the house for gifts, we want the celebration now. None of this waiting business.
Yet, in truth, this is Advent. It is not Christmas. We are waiting. We are preparing.
To observe Advent is to push back on our culture of consumption and immediacy. To observe Advent is THE Christian practice for our time. For in Advent we acknowledge the delay. We recall the Hebrew people waiting for the Promised One. And we proclaim the fact that we are liminal people. We live in the now-and-not-yet-ness of our faith. Jesus has come, and we wait for him to come again.
Waiting is so uncomfortable because we have to acknowledge both our longing and our lacking. When we confront our longing, we realize that there is something we lack. That is very definition of desire. We want what we don’t have. And when we see our longing played out each Sunday of Advent we are confronted with the very reality that we are not yet in the fullness of God’s embrace. In a culture that celebrates immediacy, consumption, and satisfaction, such a realization is nearly anathema.
In Advent we embody both our longing and come to terms with the very distance between us and God. Christians today have bought into our culture of immediacy, preaching a Gospel of God’s full presence. To even hold the season and practice of Advent counters the way we have tried to share the Good News. Advent, then, chastens us as followers of Jesus by reminding us that God is both with us and yet before us. It forces us to accept the distance between us and Christ. Christ is not “in us” but coming. Christ is not here, but is calling us into the fullness of faith.
At the close of his beautiful memoir, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton put words to this paradox.
“I no longer desire to see anything that implies a distance between You and me: and if I stand back and consider myself and You as if something had passed between us, from me to You, I will inevitably see the gap between us and remember the distance between us.
My God, it is that gap and that distance which will kill me.”
To the world around us, living in want and wait does seem like death. Why wait for anything when everything is right here? Why wallow in longing when satisfaction is so easy? And for the dominant theology of our time, preparing for the coming of Christ contradicts the very immanence we preach. Why prepare for Christ when we have Christ now, in our hearts, and will go to heaven when we die? Why all this business of rough places smoothed, valleys lifted up, mountains made low, the overthrow of the powerful, and the proud humbled?
It is Advent sisters and brothers, and there is no greater resistance than to hold this season of waiting. Advent is counter cultural.