Here, but not yet: The feeling of Advent

November 18th, 2020

During Advent, Christians sing songs such as, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” These songs anticipate the hope that God’s people felt as they waited for this Savior. Congregations light candles of hope, peace, love, and joy, like an emblazoned clock counting down to God’s intervention. My family has an Advent calendar with hand-sewn Nativity story characters, which travel daily from numbered pocket to numbered pocket on a red and green felt background.

Waiting for something that has already happened is a curious practice. Explaining the season of Advent was quite difficult for me until my wife and I were pregnant with our first child. When a child is in the womb, the child is certainly real even though you can’t hold the baby in your arms. A mother’s body changes, subtle flutters soon become kicks, and ultrasounds reveal a profile, leading someone to say, “She looks just like you!” or “Are you sure you aren’t having an alien?” The child is certainly real, but not yet born. It’s kind of like recording kick counts as the baby’s due date approaches. Ask any mother — the baby is already here, but not yet born.

The Advent season plays with our notion of time. The church gathers in the present to ponder the past for a future hope. A Christmas Carol is a beautiful story for the Advent season because it is a tale in which the past, present and future all come together in one transformative night. Certainly this story is about Scrooge’s love of money and his altruistic failures, but it is also a story about how Scrooge cannot let go of his past. Early in the story, after establishing that Marley had been dead for some time, Dickens writes, “Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley” (Stave One). Scrooge seems to cling to the past because his (only?) friend Marley represented the only things in which Scrooge trusts: hard work, frugality, unwavering discipline and action that can be weighed, measured and counted.

One of the reasons I love the song “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is because it’s difficult to count. The time signature is common time (four beats per measure and the quarter note gets the beat), but each measure seems to flow into the next without a structured beat or meter. Rarely does a phrase in the song begin with beat one, and words are extended past measure breaks. The song also talks about the promises of the past coming into fruition. The words and music together suggest that the past and future unite in an ambiguous but blessed present. Scrooge is stuck in the past, and he can’t move forward because one can only count what one’s already been given. If your world is only what can be weighed and measured, Advent’s “here, but not yet” mantra makes too little sense for a merry investment.

Jesus came to save us from counting our past as our only reality. It’s like when Moses led God’s people out of Egyptian slavery into the wilderness. Before they reached the Promised Land, the Book of Exodus says, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt … for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger'” (Exodus 16:2-3 NRSV). Because living in the wilderness was difficult and they were caught wandering between where they were and where they were heading, the people complained and wished they had died as slaves. The people became stubborn and bitter (see Exodus 32:9), almost “Scroogelike” in their relationship with God and one another. Instead of moving forward in faith, trusting that God was with them, the people kept looking over their shoulders, hopelessly lamenting over the way things were.

Advent is like living in the wilderness between what was and what will be. Living into this tension, remembering God’s promises, and depending on faith become spiritual disciplines that keep us from becoming Scrooges ourselves. Even though the Promised Land may seem far off, we hold tightly to the promises of our God, for “he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23 NIV).

This article was previously featured at Ministry Matters. It is an excerpt from The Redemption of Scrooge by Matt Rawle. 

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