As many of you liturgical types know, we have just kicked off the beginning of the church calendar with the first Sunday of Advent. As a child, this always meant that it was time to clip a few branches off of the holly bush in our backyard before piling into the car for a huge wreath-making potluck after church. I can’t say that my siblings and I were responsible for the most beautiful advent wreaths, but I can say that I cherished the times that we all spent together in that overcrowded fellowship hall.
And as I’ve gotten older and spent more time digging through the passages that we read every year, my understanding of what this time means for the church has been transformed. I’ve started to understand just how different Advent and Christmas are, and I’ve come to realize how essential the season of preparation is for the life of the body of Christ.
If you read through the four passages set aside for the first week of Advent, the first thing that you’ll notice is that none of them are all that “Christmas-y”. The first passage comes from the book of Isaiah in a time when the Israelites where under occupation by the Babylonians. The prophet cries out,
“6 We have all become like on who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity”
The lament expressed by the author of Psalm 80, the second assigned reading for Advent I, is similarly foreboding.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep roots and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with it’s shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 It sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed in it.
14 Turn again, O God of Hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine.
And when you ask people to wrestle with verses like this during the season leading up to the coming of Christ instead of the ones that they are used to, people start asking what happened to all of the Hallelujahs? Where is the stoic baby laying in a manger? Where are the wise men traveling from afar? They ask for their tried-and-true Christmas carols and they start to insist that passages like the ones from Isaiah and Psalm 80 don’t really capture the Christmas spirit.
But maybe they do.
Maybe before we can welcome the Incarnate One, we first must acknowledge why we need an Incarnate One in the first place.
Just as Isaiah and the psalmist cried out to God acknowledging their peoples’ brokenness and need for redemption, we too need to be able to name the brokenness of our world.
We need to cry out for the countless young men and women who have been senselessly killed in our towns and cities, and we need to acknowledge that our criminal “justice” system is still far from just.
We need to own up to our complicity in an economic system that privileges those who have wealth and oppressively exploits everyone else, and we need to admit that many of us would rather turn a blind eye than imagine a different way.
We need to admit that we are just as screwed up as the ancient Israelites were, and that we are just as in need of a Savior.
Before we sing Joy to the World, we must first be willing to start off this advent season singing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.