Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Advent - Looking forward to looking back, and looking forward

Sunday, December 1 is the First Sunday in Advent.  The season of Advent begins the liturgical year of the Church.  It is a season that exhibits a tension – a tension that underscores our Christian life in the “now and not yet.” 

During Advent we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.  In this season we look forward to looking back at God’s humble yet dramatic action when the Son entered into our world in fulfillment of God’s promises and was laid in a manger.  It is a time of expectant joy as we look forward to celebrating once again the wonder of our Lord’s incarnation – the fact that for our salvation the Son of God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.  During Advent, we look forward to looking back to the birth of Jesus Christ during our celebration of Christmas.

At the same time, as we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s first coming, Advent always points us forward towards our Lord’s second coming on the Last Day.  We are reminded that the Son of God who came humbly as a baby in a manger will come again in glory and might.  The God who kept His promises in the Old Testament by sending the Christ will also keep His promises to bring about the consummation of His saving work in the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of creation.

Advent prepares us to celebrate Christmas and the “now” of our salvation.  Christ has come and died for our sins.  He has risen from the dead and assured us that He has conquered death.  Because of this we stand justified – forgiven – before God and we already know the verdict of the Last Day.  As Paul wrote, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).  Already, now, we exist in a state of peace with God because of Jesus Christ.

Yet Advent also reminds us that we are still living in the “not yet.”  We are still awaiting Christ’s return when He will raise the dead and restore creation.  We are still awaiting the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).  Advent continues this theme from the end of the liturgical year as we start into a new year in the Church’s life.  We end the liturgical year and begin the new liturgical year of the Church in the recognition that we are still keeping watch as we look forward to Christ's return.

Advent underscores the “now and not yet” of the Christian life.  And so it is not surprising that it is characterized by two seemingly contradictory attitudes: repentance and joy.  On the one hand, during Advent we recognize that we are people who still struggle with sin.  We are reminded that we too must repent of all those things that would prevent our Christmas celebration from being one that is focused on Jesus Christ.  This repentance gives our worship a restrained tone as we omit the Hymn of Praise in the Divine Service, the Gloria in Excelsis.  On the other hand, Advent prepares us to celebrate the gift God has already given – the dramatic revelation of His saving love for us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  In joy we prepare to celebrate the peace God has given us in His Son as we look forward to hearing the angels sing on Christmas Eve, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth” (Luke 2:14; the opening line of the Gloria in Excelsis).

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