During this season of Advent, my spiritual reading will be devoted to the work of The Rev. Fleming Rutledge who recently published a book entitled: Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. The publication is a compilation of Rutledge’s Advent sermons, writings, and teachings. For those who are unfamiliar with Rutledge, she is considered not only one of the best Episcopal preachers but also one of the best preachers in the United States.
In her book Advent, it is clear that Rutledge is interested in recapturing the original meaning of the Advent season. Rutledge says, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came…In Advent, we don’t pretend…we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now…so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.”
If you look at the lectionary readings for the season, you will notice that the first Sunday’s focus is on the second coming of Christ – not Christmas. In addition, the second and third Sundays focus on John the Baptist’s witness to the Jesus Christ who is already born and about to begin his public ministry. Only on the fourth Sunday of Advent do we get a prelude to Christmas when we hear about Mary, Joseph, and/or Elizabeth.
In addition, there are only 2 hymns in the hymnal that portray Advent as the season when we wait for the birth of Jesus – the rest look toward Jesus’s final victorious coming. Another clue that helps us understand the original intent of Advent is discerned when we look at what the word Advent actually means. The word Advent is taken from the Latin word Adventus which can be translated into “Second Coming.”
As the consumerism of Christmas has grown over the years, it is nearly impossible to observe the original intent of Advent. In secular culture, the season leading up to Christmas has grown into a three-month event beginning in October when decorations are put up at department stores! Between parties and pageants and plays and shopping lists, who has time to keep awake and watch for the Second Coming of Christ? During this season of darkness, we are flooded with lights and sounds that distract us from the true light – Jesus Christ.
Rutledge names the tension of this time for Christians saying, “Christianity is under attack from every quarter – not least from within its own ranks as we become more and more indistinguishable from everybody else – but the commanding voices of the prophets and apostles are still capable of lifting us out of the culture wars onto a plane that not even the most cynical Jesus-basher can successfully besiege.” In other words, Advent is a season when Christians have the opportunity to remember how we have been set apart to point to the kingdom that is come.
John the Baptist calls us to repent. Quite simply, we are called to turn away from the promises of our earthly kingdoms and toward the promises of Christ whose kingdom is (being) established on earth as it is in heaven. Or as Rutledge says, “John the Baptist’s lonely, austere style of life bears witness to a reality that is coming, a reality that will expose all worldly realities, all earthly conditions, all human promises as fraudulent and transitory.” And by revealing our earthly kingdoms as counterfeit, Christ gives us the grace to turn toward the kingdom that has no end.
During this season of Advent, may you grow more alive to the truth that the only One who can save you (and us) from the darkness is the One who is not of the world but the One who is coming into the world.
Advent Devotional Companion to use with an Advent Wreath.