In Advent we are both pulled backward and stretched forward. We are pulled back to the first Advent of Christ—the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. At the same time, we are stretched forward to the second coming: the time when Christ shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Pulled backward and stretched forward, there is a rending, a tearing open of things. There is a certain sort of emptiness that is emblematic of the Christian life. Advent draws our attention to this emptiness, this void of the now-but-not-yet.
Into the empty spaces come not the sounds of Christmas cheer, but the unsettling sounds of the prophet’s cry: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2, ESV). The void is filled not with the warm feelings of good tidings and Christmas joy, but with the dread of God’s judgment that has come upon a world lost in sin. The emptiness of Advent serves as a painful reminder of hunger unsatisfied, thirst unquenched, longing and desire unfulfilled.
Amid the political unrest and tension of this past year, many of us have sharply felt the emptiness of the “not yet” in a world waiting for its redemption.
We find ourselves taking up the words of the psalmist in her prayer: “How long, O Lord?” as we await the second coming of Christ.The political turmoil of 2018, with what seems to be an ever-increasing entrenchment between right and left, has left us empty and devoid of peace. Another year filled with mass shootings at concerts, malls, and schools. Another year in a world where child is torn from mother, and the foreigner who seeks refuge is shot with tear gas. Another year in a world where the color of your skin determines what sort of “justice” you will know. Another year in a world where the unborn child and the child born in the wrong neighborhood are at the mercy of a world that is so often bereft of mercy. Another year in a world of religious and ethnic cleansing as the Rohingya flee persecution in Myanmar. Another year in a world where the people of God are tempted to sell their collective soul to the kings and princes of the earth for political protection, all the while forgetting their first love, their true love—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For many, this lack of peace is not just an external, social reality, but one that bears upon us in the depth of our being. It is worked out in body and spirit—a severing of body from soul, heart from mind, self from self. The rupture of the world divided and lost in sin is felt in each of us as a rupture of unity in our deepest being.
In this way, Advent is painfully honest—honest in the way of being truthful to our lived experience. Advent is an unwanted gift to us. It is as much an honest reckoning with sin and evil as it is a promise of healing and redemption. It is as much a forcing of the ugly truth of this world to be uttered as it is a word of hope, joy, love, and peace.
St. Paul characterizes this bleak view of the Christian’s life, and of creation itself in Romans 8:22-23: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Groaning, longing, waiting—these words make up a significant part of the vocabulary of not only Advent but also the Christian life. Commenting on this passage the New Testament scholar Richard Hays writes, “Anyone who does not recognize this as a description of authentic Christian existence has never struggled seriously with the imperatives of the gospel which challenge and frustrate our ‘natural’ impulses in countless ways.”1
Ours is a world groaning under the weight of sin. Ours is a world empty and devoid of the peace for which we long. As St. Augustine reminds us, the peace of the earthly city—if there is to be peace at all—will always be a partial, unfinished peace. The peace of the earthly city will, in small and always insufficient ways, point us to the true peace of the heavenly city that will only come with the second advent of Christ.
This stretching and pulling—this tearing open of things—as painful as it is, is God’s grace to us. In this space, empty of that which we most desire, our hearts are painfully made open to the work of God. Advent, like all the Christian life, is the time between time, that moment before the dawn when all the earth is hushed and quiet, awaiting the coming of the first ray of light. In that moment, time itself is both empty and pregnant with expectation. In this time between time, God has peeled open human history, rending time itself. God has stretched open the riddled-with-sin hollowed-out history of humankind and entered into it, redeeming it from the inside out.
In this way, the season of Advent is a season of hallowed emptiness, of longing sanctified, of waiting filled and made holy. We are reminded that God has come among us in Christ; he is the Word made flesh. God entered into human history, filling the void and emptiness left by sin. Human history is not closed off to God.
Our world, sick with sin, bloodied with evil, empty of peace, is not closed off from the healing redemption of God and to the peace of Christ.God has entered into the void, into the emptiness, into the ruptures in order to heal and make whole, in order to knit each of us and all of creation back together. In Advent, we are reminded that the human heart, human history, and time itself stands open to the grace and peace of God.
As Jesus prepared to leave his disciples, he said to them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). The peace of Christ is not as the peace of this world. It is not a fake or superficial peace, a cheap peace. It is not the mere silencing of guns, the signing of a treaty that lasts only until the next war. It is not a papering over, a mere bandaging of a gaping, festering wound. The peace of Christ is a peace that entered into this world as it was and as it is: a world where shepherds keep watch at night on land they do not own. A world of empires at work, keeping justice and injustice. A world divided by social and economic class, where how much you make determines whether you get a room at the bed and breakfast, or the five-star hotel, or the budget motel. A world where tyrants are out for the blood of the innocent. A world where mother and father and child are forced to flee their homeland as refugees to seek shelter from violent and despotic regimes. A world that is preoccupied and distracted and does not take notice of the quiet workings of God in the hidden corners. The peace of Christ is not an empty promise of happily-ever-after, but a peace that knows the reality of political unrest, the horrors of evil, the depth of the wounds of sin.
As we wait in Advent, painfully called awake to the lack of peace in our world, our hearts are opened once more to hear again of the first coming of the Prince of Peace. And as we hear the familiar story we are made ready, our hearts prepared, for his coming again. And in the time between, the peace of Christ has its way with us, setting us free to continue on the way, making the humble pilgrimage of the life of faith in a world that is not our home. In the time between, the peace of Christ nestles deep within us, seeping into all the cracks and fissures, setting us free from despair and resignation to faithfully work and pray, each in our own limited way. For as the poet W. H. Auden put it: “To those who have seen The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”2