Welcome to Advent. Welcome in. (Have you heard someone say that recently in a shop or café or convenience store? I don’t know why that expression annoys me so much, but it kinda does.) But it’s a good one to unpack, especially when you’re part of a church where people sometimes wonder—how do I get in? How do I go in deeper?
Welcome to Advent. Welcome to our new worship aid. Those who had a hand in putting this together hope you’ll enjoy it as a way for all of us to lift our voices in prayer and praise, even if we don’t know it by heart, even if this is your first time ever in this space. It’s not the only way to welcome, but I hope it contains in it the spirit of welcome and invitation that is Advent.
Welcome to a new church year. Welcome to the Gospel of Luke. Luke is tied with Mark as my favorite gospel. While they are very different writers coming from very different places, there’s an earthiness to both of them that always appeals to me, especially in this season of incarnation. If Mark’s favorite phrase is “immediately,” Luke’s favorite phrase is “Let’s eat.” Over and over again Luke shows us that what Jesus would do, were he here, would be to celebrate the least, the last, and the lost, and more often than not, to do it with food. An evangelist after my own heart.
Welcome to my favorite season. There’s a coziness to Advent, a settling in to familiar traditions, favorite hymns, maybe ritual get-togethers with people we only see once or twice a year, and seasonal prayer routines. What’s not to like?
Advent calls us forward. It is not a pause in our lives but a movement further in to the deep work of the Kingdom, the work of holiness. What’s not to like about Advent is when our seasonal traditions and our favorite hymns, canticles and carols become expressions of nostalgia that distract us from deeper work of becoming holy people for the Kingdom of God. Nostalgia is a great distraction.
There’s some tension to Advent: we are supposed to wait and to slow down, while out there in the world people are busier and busier, and we live there, too. Advent invites us to lean in to the contemplative nature of the darkness of December, the darkness of the womb. Advent invites us to wait quietly for Christ to be born. But actually, the world needs us to be light, now. Jesus has already come, and will come again. As a good Anglican, to all of this tension I say yes: Advent is a slow, dark, contemplative time that calls us forward, calls us to keep moving into the deep work of being Christ, of being light to the world, looking inward and outward.
Nowhere is this work more succinctly set forth than in today’s reading from Thessalonians: And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…And may he strengthen your hearts in holiness...
The Thessalonians have a special place in Paul’s heart. Paul loves the Thessalonians. He is exhorting them uncritically, kind of as I might exhort you: you’re amazing, you’re awesome, you’re deeply spiritual and I have never been in a congregation so theologically astute, or so faithful in prayer and worship. You all ask the right questions and are models of faith and practice, a light to the world illuminating a pathway to the Kingdom of God. Truly. Keep doing what you’re doing. AND, we are to be always doing the work of becoming holy. It is not a place we arrive. It never ends.
The coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints, the second coming, which the Thessalonians are all about, is the same second coming that Luke speaks of, redemption drawing near. According to Luke’s Jesus, we are to be on the lookout for signs of this redemption drawing near. The word Luke uses for redemption is apolutrosis, which means much more than payment—it is liberation. The work of holiness—the work of love and practice—is itself liberating work. It is not something we do so that God will love us more, or so that we will impress others. Holiness is something God does in us and for us so that we can be a blessing to the world. Holiness is the striving, as oh-so-imperfect humans, toward the perfect love of God that even now abounds in us.
What are we going to do with our holiness in Advent?
I would say think of holiness as our response to invitation. Invitation to look for signs of God’s entering into the world. Invitation to increase and abound in love for one another—even those people we must love from a distance. I’d say holiness in Advent rejects distraction, holiness keeps our minds set on Jesus who is coming and who has come into the world, and who continually calls us to be his hands and heart in the world.
The world needs us now more than ever. Us blessing the world starts with presence, and with prayer. Our friend Evelyn Underhill says that “the complete life of the Christian worker is and must be a continuous life of prayer…a constant inward abiding in God’s atmosphere.” Lest this feels far too contemplative for many of us in real life, she goes on to remind us that every action of life is directly related to God, and offers a wonderful image of a “holy woman who was accustomed to boil her potatoes for intentions of those people for whom she had not time to pray.”1
(I want to be that holy woman.) So holiness is that practice whereby all is love and all is prayer. This binds us to all that has come before and all that is to come, Christ born in us, Christ transforming the world, through us, into the Kingdom for which we work and wait, this Advent and always.
1 Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life, p. 47