On the first Sunday of Advent, I reach for my purple stole to begin my favorite season of the Christian year. I must savor these moments because they will pass quickly. Advent ends just as it’s beginning. Four Sundays I will speak on the themes of waiting and exile, repentance and expectation. Four Sundays, 26 days total, comprise Advent in 2020. The longest Advent season in a lifetime will still only be 28 days.
In any year, there’s not much time to delve deeply into themes of waiting and repentance during the days of Advent. The form of Advent does not harmonize with the content of Advent. The contrast is evident in the Advent wreath: the four candles of the Advent wreath represent four millennia before the birth of Jesus.
Is the brevity of Advent a contradiction? I believe so. That said, I won’t make a lengthy argument for a lengthier Advent in this post. Suffice it to say that I favor the kind of Advent season among western Christians that eastern Christians observe. The Eastern Orthodox Advent season, also known as the Nativity fast, begins each year on November 15th. Advent among Eastern Christians offers 40 days, which includes six Sundays, not four.
The shape, duration, even the dates of the seasons themselves have changed through the Church’s history. It’s my belief that western churches need to extend the season at this stage in our history. In a consumerist, impatient culture filled with idols, an extended Advent season trains us in a way of holiness, both in form and content, that cultivates longing for Christ and patient endurance for his coming.
So there’s my reasoning for a lengthier Advent. But that doesn’t address how to sanctify this Advent in this calendar. How does one live deeply, wisely, and well in the brevity of this season? How can I savor the season so that seeking Christ this Advent changes me more into his likeness?
The Brevity of Life
Look no further than the Advent readings from Isaiah for guidance on these questions. Tucked away among Isaiah’s prophecy of a voice in the wilderness are words of life’s brevity:
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 1
In this brief season, meditate on the brevity of this life. Human beings inherently know and feel that life is brief—our bodies and our memories tell us so. Our anxiety tells us so. The theologian Olivier Clement says that “Time becomes anguish and anguish becomes the foundation of existence in time.”2
The world’s response to brevity in this life is hurried productivity, ambitious pursuit of life goals, and maximizing personal experiences. Busyness crowds each day leaving little room for one’s first love: Christ Himself. Busyness is greed manifested in time. Relationships are sacrificed for professional ambitions. Bucket lists become more urgent than living a life of sacrifice and service for coming generations.
We lack examples of godly wisdom in this age regarding our mortality. Scripture tells us that all our achievements and our experiences are like fading flowers and withering grasses. Advent is the right season to consider the shortness of our lives.
Instead of trying to overcome life’s brevity with our own strength and wisdom, freedom awaits those who remember their death. Here is a great paradox: the more often you remember life’s brevity, the greater peace you have in Christ.
Remembrance of death teaches humility. Remembrance of death tempers my life ambitions, ordering my soul to greater, more eternal horizons than the goals I have set for my life.
The Wisdom of Solomon states “Whatever you take in hand, remember the end, and you shall never do amiss.”3Advent may be a brief season, but you can redeem these shortened days by facing the truth of your life’s work, whatever that may be. In the end, there will be unfinished work. That is not bad news; that is what it means to be a human being who awaits the fulfillment of time in Jesus Christ. I often recall the final line in Michael O’Siadhail’s poem to reframe my thoughts on work and the short span of life: “To live will be to have things we’ll leave undone.”4
Desiring the New Jerusalem
Facing the brevity of our lives means we also seek to redeem the days we have. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” the psalmist prayed. Advent, with its brief duration, gives us space to consciously number our days according to God’s wisdom. With the second coming of Christ in view during Advent, we can gain wisdom by ordering our days well. And that means examining where we place our hope.
Hope has a way of ordering our days. When Christ is our ultimate Hope, we are free to live an unhurried life. We do not need to fulfill all of our desires in this life. The Word of God has revealed the illusion of that fantasy. Our hope rests in new creation—earth and heaven made new when Christ returns.
Given the call to repentance in Advent, I must examine where my heart has placed its greatest hope. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.” Lesser desires for this life, even good desires, can subtly claim greater space in my heart than the desire for the New Jerusalem. Let me not forget the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem must exceed my greatest joy in this life (Psalm 137.6).
So I must face these difficult questions in Advent: how many of my best aspirations , my strongest desires do not include the coming of Christ? How much energy do I expend striving to fulfill my heart’s desires in this life?
Advent is a season of confession and repentance, of metanoia; to change my mind and orient my heart to the greater horizon of God’s New Jerusalem.
The Vesper Light, Evening Prayer, and Keeping Watch
With less than 30 days in this season, every day counts. Even more, every evening counts. Advent is a season that draws our attention to the evening hours, especially the hours near sundown, the appearing of “the vesper light.” Every evening is a little death; it is the dying of the day.
In the wisdom of ancient Christian prayer, we see in the evening hours a figure of our own death and the advent of Christ. Evening prayers are oriented toward the end of our lives:
That we may depart this life in your faith in fear and not be condemned before the great judgment seat of Christ; we entreat you, O Lord.
Also the Song of Simeon:
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace
According to your word
For my eyes have seen your great salvation
Which you have prepared before the face of all people
To be a light to the Gentiles and to the be the Glory of your people, Israel.
So here’s my best counsel for savoring each day of Advent: make Evening Prayer the centerpiece of your day this Advent. Arrange your personal and family schedule so this is the highest priority, the focal point of the day. If our hearts and minds are called to keep watch during Advent; to orient our desires toward the coming Kingdom; to live wisely in this short span of life, then Evening Prayer in the vesper hour trains us in holiness. Even if the day’s work and its tasks are unfinished, light the Advent candles instead. Worship the King who is coming and coming again. We cannot complete the fullness of time. We await the fullness of time that Christ alone brings when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven.