I am writing this column from San Diego where I am attending the annual meetings of the Academy of Homiletics, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion. How’s that for a mouthful? And why am I telling you this? And it’s not because when I left Minneapolis it was 9 degrees. Okay. Maybe that’s part of it.
Specifically, my reflections this week are getting a few words down here and there during the Academy of Homiletics meeting. This guild is for those who teach preaching. Compared to SBL/AAR (roughly 10,000 attendees will descend upon San Diego over the weekend), AOH is, well, minuscule. We have about 150. To be clear, this is not a guild for preachers, but for those who teach preaching. Not many of us.
I guess as much as preachers need support, teachers who teach preaching do as well. And I found myself thinking about the timing. The week before the first Sunday in Advent. Again, why am I telling you this?
Because that number, 150, made me realize how few people have Advent on the mind. This is a major challenge for preaching the first Sunday in Advent. And it doesn’t help to have apocalyptic Armageddon from Mark. That is, while we want to call attention to the beginning of this important season in the church year, the beginning of the new church year, convincing our congregational members that Advent matters when the rest of the world is in full-blown Christmas mode is, well, a challenge. Yet, part of preaching the first Sunday of Advent is to set the stage for the next four weeks. With the texts we have for this week, what tone do you want to set? How might we create a desire to have Advent on the mind?
Preachers know that there are certain themes that we should keep in mind, that we should be preaching, during Advent — waiting, preparation, anticipation. These are all fine and good. But when I reread the texts for the first Sunday of Advent and thought about having Advent on the mind, I was struck by actually how little preparation there is. Ok. There’s some. I admit it. But what I primarily heard this time around was presence. The presence of God, despite our preparation and waiting and anticipation.
The Gospel text from Matthew is the charge to keep awake. The Psalmist asks for God’s face to shine (Psalm 80:19) and Paul knows the desperate need for Christ’s revealing (1Cor 1:7).
So while our typical Advent themes are all well and good, maybe this year might be the year to recast Advent’s future into its present promise. Maybe having Advent on the mind can reorient our present and not just be about our future. My concern with Advent, as much as I like it, is that while every one else is in the Christmas spirit, we dutifully wait for the proper Christmas caroling. I look around and see the rest of the world living the present of Christmas, and I am expected to put it off for four weeks only to have Christmas gone December 26. Believe me, this is not a charge for ditching Advent. But it is an invitation to imagine Advent differently this year.
What if we translated or relanguaged “keep awake” as “be present. Live in the moment.” Keep awake does not only have to be forward thinking. It can be present thinking which may be much more meaningful. The problem with preparation and waiting and anticipation is that it seems so focused on the future. When life is too much about future realities, accomplishments, completed tasks, where is the present? To what extent the present is simply preparation for the future and has nothing to do with living in the moment? This Advent, let’s make “keep awake” less about the future and more about a future that is tearing open the heavens and coming down (Isaiah 64:1). Because then maybe our parishioners would be willing to have Advent on the mind.
Advent’s waiting, preparation, and anticipation is the promise that our present will indeed be changed. Soon. The challenge for preaching Advent is to bring that future into the present. I get that one aspect of the church’s calling in the world is to invite a countercultural existence for the sake of being the change it wishes to see in the world. At the same time, we also need to help our parishioners imagine that they can live a Christian life in the present without constant conflict and rebuff from those who see us as being countercultural only for the sake of its own claim.
I am not necessarily advocating for seeing God, looking for God in the many Christmas preparations already in place. I am suggesting that we live Advent as though God’s presence is assumed, and that that reality therefore changes the meaning of our present.
I realize in rereading this article before its posted betrays a significant theological bias of mine — the incarnation of God. I have a hard time always anticipating God’s future when God so radically committed God’s self in our present. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? In other words, what if the season of Advent could be, even before Christmas, the celebration of God’s fully embodied presence which then invites our own full presence in the moments of our lives?
Advent should not be wishing away the present in anticipation of Christmas. Rather, Advent should be living the present knowing that Christmas makes fully embodied presence possible.
A Blessed Advent!