By Geneva Wright
Why exactly do we celebrate Advent? For many people, the season exists mainly to mark off the days until Christmas. In 21st century America, this lead-up period is almost as much fun as the holiday itself: buying presents, decorating a tree, eating Christmas cookies, and gathering as families for an annual viewing of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” or “Rudolph” or “Elf.” For four weeks, we build our anticipation for the biggest holiday event of the year.
All of these fun experiences are good and valuable, but we must remember that something deeper is happening, too. If the purpose of Christmas is only to mark Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, then why the need for a whole season of preparation? Christian history reminds us that Christmas has a twofold purpose. First, it reminds us that Jesus came to earth to die on the cross for our sins. But it also points us forward, to the day that He will return and restore us to perfection.
Advent reminds us that we live in the “now and not yet”—a period of waiting after Jesus’ victory over sin and death, but before His final return in glory. Throughout the Bible, we see examples of people who endured suffering while awaiting the promises of God: Simeon, the devout man who was told that he would not die until he had seen the Christ; Hannah, who prayed fervently for a son for years; the Israelites, who groaned under the yoke of slavery in Egypt for centuries. During Advent, we hold two competing ideas in tension: mourning, both for the hardships we have endured and for the disgrace of our own sin; and delicious anticipation of the joy we will soon receive.
This December provides a stark example of what it means to live in the “now and not yet.” For nine long months, our country has been ravaged by a pandemic. Case levels and hospitalizations have never been higher, and the stresses of fear, disruption, grief, loneliness, and economic uncertainty are taking their toll. At the same time, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Recent announcements about vaccines under development have been extremely encouraging. We still have a long way to go, since production and widespread distribution are anticipated to take months. But we can begin to anticipate a day when this hardship is over and we can return to familiar activities and experiences.
But we are not there yet. Right now, we are existing in the advent of the pandemic’s end: knowing it is on the horizon, but still trudging through the long hours and day-to-day stresses of life in quarantine. We are caught between the reality of current suffering and the hope of future liberation.
Similarly, the medieval Christians who established Advent observed it with regular fasting, repentance, and prayer. They considered it to be a time to examine their lives and prepare their hearts, knowing that Jesus will one day return. With that in mind, in the months of quarantine that remain, let us follow their example: Pray. Repent. Look on this time as an extended fast: a chance to put your heart in order and a reminder that Christ is our source of sustenance and fulfillment.
We must not suppose, of course, that the post-pandemic world will be perfect. It will still be marked by wreckage and grief. The same political tensions, resentments, and injustices from before will continue. Worse still, those of us who have lost loved ones or suffer from the long-term effects of COVID will bear our burdens for a very long time.
By contrast, the kingdom that Christ brings is perfect. All barriers will be brought down. Resentments will be lost in forgiveness. Grief will be turned into joy. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,” promises Revelation 21:4.
This Advent season, as we go through our Christmas preparations, let us remember our Christian brothers and sisters throughout history who endured hardship by clinging to the promises of God. Let us set aside time to lament our broken world, while allowing that lament to sweeten the anticipation of the world we know is coming. And let us use this time of waiting to reorient our hearts and strengthen our faith. One day this pandemic will be over, and we will be fully reunited with each other. On another day—no one knows exactly when—the sufferings of this present world will be wiped away, and we will be reunited with Christ. What a beautiful hope! Come, Lord Jesus.