Understanding Advent

Winter SunsetSpeaking to children about theology, the church’s teachings, or liturgical seasons requires far more than coming up with a mental script. It demands pretty extensive pre-processing. I so wish this truth struck me in advance of stepping in front of the elementary school’s student body. I stood in chapel set to very briefly explain the meaning and themes of the fast approaching season of Advent. We started with the basic meaning of Advent, “to come” or “coming”. Then we asked the obvious question, “Who’s coming?” Now even gathered in our neo-gothic chapel, I was not so naïve as to be surprised by the “Santas” outnumbering the “Baby Jesuses”, especially from the kindergartners. And it makes sense. Let’s be honest here, children definitely get that Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus, but if you ask them what they are excited about or who is coming to town, Santa has it in the bag.

One of the other difficulties is that Advent is the Russian nesting doll of metaphors and themes. We enter this season of waiting for the birth of that beautiful Christ-child wrapped in swaddling clothes (who we believe was born over 2000 years ago) then on day one, take an immediate and vivid apocalyptic left turn through wars and natural calamities reminding us that God is not done. Then we are visited for a week or two by a fully grown, thickly bearded cousin of Jesus (no, still not Santa). This wild-eyed John the Baptist warns us, with the image of an axe at the trunk of a tree, to get our lives in order because the Savior is coming and he is not happy! Then we stick John back in Elizabeth’s womb, as he leaps for joy, in the presence of an expectant Mary. We unpack all of this while quietly lighting a candle for hope, a candle for peace, a candle for joy, and a candle for love. Meanwhile outside the church’s doors Christmas fills the air with song, bright lights, and good cheer.

“So students, the correct answer was that we are waiting for Christ to be born more fully in our own hearts! Isn’t it all quite clear?”

Thank goodness for the candid quizzical expressions of children. Their look tells me I better return to the drawing board and wrestle a bit more with this gift we have been given in the season of Advent. I have long loved Advent, but why?

As I sit with it a while, I believe it is because Advent invites us to practice hope. Like exercising a muscle, learning an instrument, or reviewing for a test, we cultivate and strengthen hope. And Advent reminds us that our souls’ greatest longing, what we hope for most, is God. It makes sense that at our core we are hardwired toward the God that made us, redeemed us, and awaits us. In this life that we can touch and be touched, we want an assurance we have not been left alone. We want to feel and know deep down that God is with us. Advent takes us by the hand and binds our hopes, our longings, our desire for God with all those who through the centuries have cried out for God to make God’s self known. We are not ready for Christmas lights, we are still trying to adjust our eyes to see that light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not (and cannot) overcome it. We are training our eyes and our lives to hope!

Ben Maas

About the Author

The Rev. Benjamin (Ben) Maas is the rector of Saint James’ Episcopal Church and School in Warrenton, Virginia. The school serves children ages two through fifth grade. Leading worship, morning assembly, preschool chapel, and teaching are some of his greatest joys in ministry. Ben is married to Anna Maas and has a thirteen year old son, Elliott, and an eleven year old daughter, Lauralee.