"Watch!" Learning from Advent

Posted: Dec 11, 2006 12:00 PM
"Watch!" Learning from Advent

In America, Halloween costumes are hardly put away before Christmas decorations start appearing in stores. Christmas songs begin playing on the radio in November. Halls are decked with boughs of holly shortly after Thanksgiving. Then, on December 26, it all goes away. Decorations are stored, carols are forgotten, and Christmas trees are tossed to the curb. Abruptly, Christmas is over.

The Christian calendar was constructed rather differently than this. The weeks leading up to Christmas were not commercial, they were spiritual. This time of year was called Advent, which is derived from the Latin word for "coming." Christians throughout the centuries spent the Advent weeks piously and eagerly anticipating the arrival, not of Santa Claus, but of Jesus himself. In this time of preparation, Christians remember two events: the Nativity, where Christ first came to us, and the Second Coming, that time when he will come again. Advent was a quiet time of reflection, but on Christmas day the joyous celebration began, and it carried through all twelve days of Christmas, ending on the feast of the Epiphany.

In the hustle and bustle of "Holiday", the new Christmas season that was created by department stores, there is hardly a spare moment for quiet reflection and eager anticipation. That's a shame because the effect has been that we forget: Christ is coming! "No one knows about that day or hour..." Scripture says. (Mark 13:32)

Christ taught the following parable:

"Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!'" (Mark 13:33-37)

Advent, then, is that time of year when we prepare ourselves for Christ by remembering the first coming and preparing for the second.

These are very pious thoughts, a cynic may say, but what does it have to do with public policy? After all, if we await Christ's return, if we truly expect that he may come any day, why worry about justice and peace on Earth? Shouldn't we simply wait for Christ the King, who will make all things right?

Unfortunately, this has become a prevalent mentality among some Christians of the Left Behind generation, but it is misguided. Look again, for example, at the parable Jesus gave. Before he left, Christ gave us assigned tasks. Feed the hungry, he said. Give drink to the thirsty. Give shelter to the stranger. Clothing to the naked. Care to the sick. Company to the imprisoned. (Matthew 25:34-36) We have received our tasks; what if Christ returns and all is in shambles? What if we have fallen asleep without feeding or sheltering or visiting? What if we neglect the tasks we have been given?

Society at large, not just individual Christians, would do well to ask itself the same questions. God speaks to society, not just individuals. Addressing the people of Judah through the prophet Zechariah, the Lord declared, "Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other." (Zechariah 9:8) Similarly, God condemned the rulers of Judah, saying, "Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them." (Isaiah 1:23) Over and over again, God commands rulers and their people to seek justice and peace.

In modern America, everyone has the opportunity to participate in a democratic government and all of us participate in the formation of culture. We all have a role to play in helping those who are the least fortunate. The fact that Christ will come again is no excuse for abandoning political engagement or cultural involvement. To the contrary! It gives us every reason to redouble our efforts, so that when Christ appears we will be found faithfully carrying out the tasks that he has assigned to us. Christ's impending return should not give rise to a spirit of fatalism; it is not an excuse for withdrawal or retreat from cultural engagement. Rather, it should offer added motivation to eagerly carry out our assigned tasks.

Carl F. H. Henry expressed this point beautifully when he said, "Not until God brings down the curtain on history do we have the prerogative of abandoning it to final destruction and doom." There is always something we can do to further the cause of justice in our society. There are innumerable ways in which we can show our love for Christ by reaching out to the poor, oppressed and downtrodden.

Therefore, this Christmas season, let us not forget Advent. Advent is the perfect time to take stock of our lives, checking to see whether we are carrying out the tasks that Christ has given us, or whether we have fallen asleep. Again and again we must remind ourselves: "Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come."