When we were kids, my younger sister and I pulled back the numbered paper doors on the Advent calendar at breakfast. To prevent daily squabbles, one of us had the odd days, the other the even. The doors were hidden within the decorative scene like multiple Waldo’s. Often the chimney concealed one or the candle-lit window in the village church or the hay piled by the stable. Behind each of the twenty-four doors was a drawing of a treasure like a bicycle or a glittery kitten playing with a red ball.
Twenty-four days is a long time to wait when you’re six or eight or ten, and the calendar was a creative and beautiful way to count down to the day I could open my presents. The anticipation built and built, and every day I wanted to ask, “Will Christmas ever come?”
Finally Christmas morning dawned, and it was wonderful. Ripping off the wrapping paper to find the number one item on my wish list was a moment of pure joy. Though I’d hardly slept the night before, the expectancy-fueled adrenaline kept me going all day.
For about a week the unwrapped gifts brought delight, but then the warm fuzzies dissipated. The items gradually lost their appeal, the new car smell wore off, and the initial glow of satisfaction faded. Maybe it was ingratitude; maybe it was a child’s seedling awareness that stuff doesn’t satisfy. Maybe it was a preview of the “now and the not yet” struggles of the Christian journey.
Advent is a pre-Christmas observance that keeps those post-Christmas tensions of childhood alive. Last year, my first Advent in a liturgical church setting, the dearth of Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, purple and blue bows, and the sense of expectant waiting felt as unsettling as a wobble board. Not that Advent is a “Bah, humbug” mindset for four weeks, but it’s more sedate than the de rigeur flood of red poinsettias, sparkling lights on Christmas trees in the sanctuary, and elaborate Christmas productions found in many evangelical churches.
The haunting carols, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” remind us of the pining of the pre-incarnation remnant, and awaken us to our dormant post-incarnation yearnings. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and we rightly celebrate and sing “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The grace gift is wonderful, and the joy found in receiving it a sweet treasure to cherish. Salvation has come, and we rejoice.
But we still experience suffering, the creation still groans, outwardly we’re wasting away, and evil people still succeed in their ways (Romans 8:18-23; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Psalm 37:7). Advent mysteriously brings the “now” of the Incarnation and the “not yet” of the promised Second Coming together. The prophets and faithful waited centuries for the Messiah, and the centuries roll by as we wait for Jesus to return and complete the restoration promised in Revelation 21 and 22.
Like paper doors on a calendar, the rituals of Advent ease the waiting, and renew our hope as we continue the watch. We unwrap the gift of Christ on Christmas with joy, and still we say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”