I grew up in a church that did not observe the church calendar beyond celebrating Christmas and Easter--the two big ones, of course, the two famous spikes in church attendance in America every year. While attending SPU, my beloved alma mater (which intentionally cultivates an ecumenical community among its professorial staff, students, and campus worship services) I was slowly introduced to spiritual practices unfamiliar to me: the Lenten season, Common Prayer, the Doxology, "Thanks be to God" and "Also with you."
In his New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren writes, "Since--as we've said before--postmodern is post-Protestant, I think that our forms of spirituality and spiritual formation will be more like the ancient and medieval church and less like the modern church. I think we may welcome back tradition and saints and liturgy and holy days." His book was published in 2001. I see his words proving true in my own life, nearly thirteen years later: an evangelical woman, through and through, learning to light candles and observe the church calendar.
Here's what I am learning about Advent, in my first proper observation of the season: it's about waiting, expectation, longing, anticipation. It's about promises fulfilled and promises yet to come. It's about covenant--the ancient covenant made between God and Israel, the collective longing for a Messiah, fulfilled in such beautiful and unexpected ways by Jesus; and the covenant yet to be fulfilled, a marriage proposal of sorts between Jesus and the beautiful creation he loves and promises to redeem. We remember the way Israel waited for a Messiah, and we share in their waiting and longing as we hope for Jesus to return and set the world right--particularly as we recognize all the ways the world is not yet right.
(I see it all around, and in myself, too--all is not well, in Syria, in Congress, in the health care system, in the gap between the rich and the poor, in the oppression of woman, in families, in me).
I try to take note, too, of the ways Jesus fulfilled the first covenant to the people of Israel, this promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which presumed a much more nationalistic understanding of God: Israel, the chosen nation, blessed in order to bless the entire world. And yet, for all the nationalistic language used, the ways God then lived out the promises made to the nation of Israel were shocking, more inclusive and universal than anticipated by the Jewish community.
Many in Israel were on the look-out for a political leader to save them from the humiliation of the occupation by Rome. In doing so, they missed God-in-the-flesh, the one who who loved his enemies, turned the other cheek, broke all kinds of widely-accepted religious rules, and championed the poor and marginalized of society. Jesus was not a political leader, and he was not just for the Jews--he welcomed in the outsiders, the ones who were not too comfortable within systems of power to welcome in the disruptive and humbling work of God in their lives.
"Most Jews felt righteous hating these godless oppressors (the Romans), which is why so many longed for a Messiah who would lead them in a divinely assisted violent conquest over them. How it must have grieved many when Jesus instead commanded followers to reject violence and to love and do good to their enemies, even going so far as to make this a precondition for being considered a child of God (Matt. 5:44-45; Luke 6:35)! It's little wonder that some of these people helped get him executed." (Greg Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt).If the first covenant was fulfilled in ways that seemed shocking and unexpected to the religious in first-century Palestine, I wonder about the ways we will be surprised by the second covenant, still to come, the ways God will fulfill God's promise to restore all of creation, "making all things new."
We wait and we hope.