Are things getting blurry out there yet? Ever want to close your eyes and just make it all go away?
Advent is a beginning. Right in the middle of the hustle and bustle, it offers an invitation to see the world afresh. It’s the beginning of the year, according to the Church’s calendar. Though connected to Christmas, it has its own focus as a season.
And don’t we all need a little perspective this time of year? Advent offers us just that opportunity.
Historically, Advent has a double focus. The word itself means “coming.”
The first focus of Advent is the coming of Christ two thousand years ago.
Rather than jump right into feasting, many Advent observers have actually used it as a time of fasting. With so many holiday goodies around, why would anyone want to deny themselves the pleasure of treats? The intent behind fasting is to prepare your heart to fully receive the joy of Christmas. It is to taste the hunger and hope of humanity as they waited for the Messiah to appear. It is to insert oneself back in time, to relive the stories of the Old Testament, to wait right along with those who faith kept them looking ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promises. It is to join our voices with countless others and sing, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” You don’t have to fast to do that. But you can readjust your focus and purpose to live awhile with the ancient longing.
It is this focus which makes the celebration of Christmas all the sweeter when it arrives. It is this focus that allows us to keep the heart of Christmas in central view. It is this focus which reminds us that the Incarnation really has changed everything.
The second focus of Advent might seem a bit strange at first glance.
But this is also the time of year when the Church has looked ahead to the second coming of Christ. There are promises yet to be fulfilled. There are hopes yet to be realized. There are circumstances all around which make us cry out for salvation’s completion. We are not so different from those Old Testament saints, after all. The earth groans for redemption, and our heavy hearts groan along with it, whispering, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And yet our whispers are not without comfort and joy. For the same God who stooped to take on our flesh will one day come to reign over all. He will put things to right. He will put us to right. This is the promise we now hold, along with a reassurance from our Saviour that brings light to dark days – “Fear not!”
It is this focus that reminds us we are still pilgrims on a journey. It is this focus which lifts our heads in hope in times of fear and doubt. It is this focus which allows us to see there is more to come, and that Christmas may be a beautiful word, but it is not the last word.
Advent says to us, “You want to see clearly? Begin here. Begin by looking doubly at Christ.”
Have you ever done that experiment where you close one eye and try to complete a task that requires depth perception? We did this in high school. With one eye closed, we had to extend our arm and try to drop a nail (I think it was a nail? Why was it a nail?) into a small styrofoam cup. Without the benefit of both eyes open, we lost what is called “stereoscopic vision.” We had no depth perception. For most of us, the nail went clanging to the floor.
Perhaps more than ever, we need spiritual stereoscopic vision.
When we look doubly at Jesus, we place ourselves right where we ought to be – in the reality between the Incarnation and the Glorious Appearing. We are people who must live between these great poles of history, held up between fulfillment and expectation, in the necessary tension of a kingdom that is both “already” and “not yet.”
We begin by reminding ourselves not only of the origins of our faith in a humble manger, but by reminding ourselves of the end. Not the end of all things, but of this broken world as we know it. We know Jesus Christ will once again reappear and redefine our entire reality. We begin with the knowledge that our Future in Christ is drawing us on, calling us to be conformed to an image that is eternal.
It is only by looking at both “comings” do we see Christ clearly. It is only with both eyes wide open that we gain the perspective needed to walk ahead into a new season, and a new year. This is how we can aim for what is good and not have it all come crashing to the floor.
This is the vision Advent has to offer.
If you would like to walk through this Advent with one of the ancients, might I suggest my Advent devotional Abraham’s Advent: A Stranger’s Journey to Bethlehem and Beyond? It is my hope that this little book will help keep things in focus in the weeks leading up to Christmas.