Anticipation and Trepidation – the two faces of Advent

Advent 2 – 2015

Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:1-11, Luke 3:1-6

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Amen.

Advent is an extraordinary time of year. From both a secular and a religious point of view it is a time of both anticipation and trepidation.

In the secular sense, we are all filled with anticipation in relation to the gathering of family and friends, the giving and receiving of presents and the sharing of good food and drink. Yet such happy expectations are often marred by trepidation – so much can and often does go wrong. Christmas is a time when family disagreements come to light or are accentuated -tensions arise with regard to where and with whom the celebrations should be held and there is always the anxiety that you will have spent a lot of money on what turns out to be the wrong gift.

From a religious point of view there is a sense of anticipation as we look forward to celebrating once again the extraordinary event of God becoming one of us. We relive Advents and Christmases past, experience a sense of nostalgia as we remember Advent traditions (calendars and candles, community carols) and we anticipate the joy of joining with fellow believers at Christmas celebrations in our parishes. In the Anglican tradition our liturgy marks the season with the colour purple, an absence of flowers and the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath – one, then two, then three .. as Christmas draws closer. It is as if we hold our breath expectantly waiting for the birth of Jesus.

However, the sense of excitement is balanced by a feeling of trepidation. Advent has a double meaning, we wait to relive the past, but we also wait for the return of Jesus. We remember and anticipate the Christ child with a sense of wonder and awe, but at the same time we look forward to Christ’s coming in glory – an event that brings with it a sense of trepidation and even fear. There are a number of reasons for this anxiety that can border on terror not least of which are the number of texts that suggest that Jesus’/God’s coming will be accompanied by unnatural events, terrifying signs and the working out of God’s judgement.  It is impossible to predict the timing of Jesus’ return – “it will come like a thief in the night”(Mk 13:35) and we are led to believe that we should be “be pure and blameless” (1 Thess 1:10).

Jesus’ return will be an awesome occasion and we will have to account for our lives, but that does not mean that we should live in abject terror. On the contrary, as our readings today remind us Jesus’ return is not so fearsome that we should live our lives in a state of constant anxiety. Malachi tells us that we “will delight” in God’s messenger (3;1). Paul is confident that the Thessalonians will be ready (1:6). Zechariah (recalling Isaiah) speaks of “a dawn from on high breaking upon us”. Even John the Baptist who has some harsh words to say is confident (again quoting Isaiah) that “all flesh will see the salvation of God (3:6).

Anticipation and trepidation fill Advent (the pre-Christmas season) in equal measure, yet it is easy to focus on one and not the other. For some people the tensions of Christmas are so stressful that there is no joy in the preparation (or even in the celebration) of Christmas. Others are so caught up in the festivities that they have no time to consider the impact of their behaviour on others.

For some Christians, especially those for whom Jesus’ coming again has been used to enforce obedience and subjugation to a particular party line are so terrified that they cannot imagine Jesus’ return as being anything other than a terrifying event. All the joy and wonder have been lost. Others, focusing on God’s generosity and open-heartedness, have a tendency to become complacent, to forget that we owe God everything and that our lives should demonstrate our gratitude and reflect God’s presence in us.

Our church year begins with Advent that sets the tone for our whole Christian journey. The themes and tensions of Advent help us to find a healthy balance between holding God in awe and fear and knowing ourselves completely and unconditionally loved. Keeping the tension between always being alert and ready and yet resting comfortably in the knowledge of being so utterly accepted and treasured. The sense of trepidation which Advent brings keeps us on our toes, forbids us becoming too relaxed, too comfortable, too complacent, stops us from taking God and God’s love for us for granted. At the same time the season of Advent reminds us that God’s love transcends all our missteps, our failures and deliberate faults and comes to us over and over again in the form of a vulnerable infant, reminding us that there is nothing to fear and everything to hope.

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