December is a time for the familiar cycle of work deadlines and family obligations for a professor at Wheaton College. But Advent overrides these obligations with its season of expectation and hope.
As the Advent season begins again this year, I feel caught in a whirlwind, with different kinds of time swirling around me. It threatens to be less a holy season and more a collision.
Work time smacks into church time. Family time clashes with deadlines. Fraught time crashes headlong into the sacred time of Advent.
My sense of this collision of times is born, as I imagine it is for most of us, of my own experiences with Advent time and other kinds of time. The rhythms of my work life, family life and church life -- because they circle round again each year -- are something that I meet with expectation, with some semblance of preparedness and, truthfully, with both delight and dread.
I am primed, familiar with these particular circlings of time, to meet the next part of the cycle. I sympathize with my children, who beg me not to tell them that good things are coming too far ahead of time. “Mom, don’t tell us. It’s too hard to wait so long.”
They are thinking of promised trips to the movie theater or of family vacations, and they are quite right: waiting is hard. We have to learn to do it, though, not just in anguish but also in joy. In Advent, we learn to live in the waiting, to live in hope, to savor the promised coming.
As December dawns each year, different lives and different institutions have their own rhythms. Each is somewhat different, but we all experience this sense of being at a certain location in the cycle.
My home in the Midwest braces for winter. We pull out coats and lay in stores of salt to de-ice our walks. We check our snowblowers and cringe at our heating bills. We are located in seasonal time.
Institutional life, bound, for me, to the rhythms of the academic calendar, also brings its predictable early-December happenings. As final exams and term papers loom, there are students to be shepherded through to the end. Then will come the grading. Institutional time governs my Decembers as surely as the falling temperatures do.
Family life has its rhythms, too. I yearn for Christmas when the phone calls, texts and emails sound out, calling me to get ready -- to negotiate calendars between in-laws, parents and siblings; to try to remember, with my spouse, whose year it is to sit through the interminable elementary-school holiday sing; to guide the sugared children through their own school rhythms, struggling to remember the homework in the midst of the class parties, as they wait on pins and pine needles for Christmas to come.
Seasonal turnings. Institutional rhythms. Family traditions.
There’s also my cantankerous to-do list, which screams at me to be busy, to be productive, to check off so many more tasks before another year ends. The specifics differ across the body of Christ, but all of us are located in other rhythms besides the rhythm of the church calendar.
The writers of the Scriptures know these rhythms -- from Genesis, where “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (8:22 NRSV), to, more darkly, the author of Ecclesiastes and the “time for every matter under heaven” (3:1). The Scriptures know our cycles, but they know of another kind of time as well.
The cycles are good; we would not want to be exempt from our seasons, families and institutions. But the Christian story, while tending those cycles, is more linear than circular. Advent comes round year after year, but it points us to the end, to the Christ who came in the fullness of time, who is the Lord of time and the goal of time. To Christ who has come and is coming again.
Advent time is apocalyptic time. It is no stranger to the seasons of Ecclesiastes, but it is dominated by the time of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus lets us know that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15). In Mark’s apocalyptic time, the disciples follow “immediately.”
Advent repentance is the repentance of expectation and of hope, spurred on by the urgent proclamation that Christ has come and is coming. In the revealing light of Advent, we learn to “keep awake,” because we “do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (Mark 13:35). Advent time is the time of Revelation 22:20, where we learn to say, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
In my church and home, we set out the four candles, waiting in their wreath to be lit one by one. Four unmelted wax beacons begin the church year with the promise that the end is near.
I am conditioned to associate those unlit candles with the season, the work and the family rhythms that define my Decembers. I cannot separate them from the rhythms of unrelenting busyness and pressing demands. The darkness of Midwestern Decembers will always be linked to the darkness of Advent for me.
But once the candles are lit, I respond more deeply, and I hope and pray that God will continue to nurture this as the Advent seasons of my life unfold.
At this deeper level, the rhythms the candles represent collide with and blessedly override the other rhythms. The goal of all things is seen in the cycles and redeems the cycles from their endless repetition unto themselves.
The lit candles overcome my individual preoccupations and my limited perspective, uniting me with the whole church, around the world, as we wait together, hearts pounding, standing at the precipice of our Lord’s coming.