Advent is about our deep need for hope and for justice
Tomorrow is Advent Sunday. The word “Advent” enters popular culture at one point only these days: Advent calendars. The traditional ones with nativity scenes behind each cardboard window have given way to those offering chocolate, a shot of gin each day (the “Ginvent” calendar — I kid you not) or even the My Little Pony version for £38.98, with 24 small gaudy plastic horses.
Advent calendars began in Germany in the mid-19th century, and the basic idea was to build a sense of anticipation. Opening a little door every day, counting down the numbers until Christmas Day, is a way of building suspense, increasing expectation for the approaching celebration. Which is why, of course, the ones offering chocolate or gin do rather miss the point, providing instant gratification rather than the delayed sort that makes the final festivities so much sweeter and more satisfying.
Traditionally, Advent, like Lent, was one of the times in the Christian year when people were in waiting mode. It was, in part, waiting for Christmas, but also for something more — for the day when Christ would return a second time. This was to be a day when the world would finally be set to rights again, when God would step in to bring history to its true fulfilment. Advent is therefore ultimately about our profound need for two things: hope and justice.
Without hope, human life is unbearable. It is rare to find moments of total satisfaction, where everything, literally everything, is perfect. Most of our happiness involves some kind of expectation, some kind of hope that things will look up. The child waiting excitedly for Christmas is a picture of happiness, almost more so than the day itself, which often leaves behind a tinge of sadness that the day we’d built up to for so long is over so quickly. We all know that feeling of receiving something or arriving somewhere we have longed for, only to find that it wasn’t actually what we were longing for after all. We need hope, but so often, when we get it, the object of our hope disappoints. Whether a Christmas present, a clean bill of health, or the dream job, so often, getting what we long for fails to match the intensity of that very desire. When hope is absent, either because we are completely sated, with nothing left to look forward to, or because we are in despair, with no prospect of change, life becomes at best dissatisfying, at worst intolerable. Our capacity for happiness is somehow tied up with anticipation, and the inability of anything in this life to satisfy that hope is a hint that we were made for something more than this world can offer.
Yet Advent is not just about our deep human need for hope. It is also about our need for justice. Advent looks forward to the (perhaps still distant) day when the Son of God will make another entry into the world, this time not incognito, but, as the creed puts it, “to judge the quick and the dead”. Judgment is about justice — putting things right — and without justice the trafficker and the tyrant win. Ultimately our deepest desires will be met, not by another gadget under the tree, but when this world will finally be put right, so that children are no longer sold into slavery, refugees can return home and our own broken hearts are healed. And Advent also looks forward to the days when we see signs of that future, in the small signs of justice and healing that we are privileged to glimpse in the meantime.
We need to be able to hold onto the hope that even though this world is seldom just, one day, even if it is beyond our lifetime, justice will come. Without that hope, patience is a waste of time. With it, even in our darkest moments, life can be bearable, even joyful. Advent calendars teach us to wait patiently. Advent Sundays teach us to hope expectantly, believing that God will one day make things good.
The Rev Dr Graham Tomlin is Dean of St Mellitus College. HisLooking Through the Cross (Bloomsbury £9.99) is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2014