Throughout its long history, Advent has been a paradoxical season: a time of joyful expectation combined with penitence, looking forward to the Second Coming while preparing to celebrate the First, a season of peaceful inwardness mixed like oil with the vinegar of stories of thieves breaking in, kings returning in judgment after long absences, and prophets warning of how little time we have. To the modern person, it can seem utterly disorderly, impossible to simplify and make “downloadable” in a simple package.
But, then, that is precisely the point.
Advent is not meant to be clear or easy, dipping into the mystery of time and eternity as it does. When a physicist begins to discuss quantum mechanics or String Theory, we know we are entering an arena so complex that no one—not even our guide—can adequately express it. Speaking of probabilities and multiple dimensions is dizzying because no one can fully understand it. Yet, we study these things because in doing so we come to a deeper understanding of the physical universe in which we live.
Advent is, to a degree, similar. None of us can fully understand what it is to be like God, living outside of the limits of space and time. Being made in the image of God, though, we cannot simply live on the purely animal level of physical and material reality. The spiritual part of being human must be nourished: either on its true diet of communion with God (in and through the Creation and the neighbor, as Jesus taught and lived), or by a diet of “junk food” that mimics the spiritual life, but leads ultimately to metaphysical malnourishment. This latter choice goes a long way to explain why we are in such a terrible way today… but that is another talk, I suppose.
To eat the authentic diet of faith, we must learn to accept some nourishment that at first seems impossible to consume. That nourishment is called paradox. Essential Christianity knows that Truth with a capital “T” is so vast a thing that no one of us can fully appreciate it. What is needed is a way to open up the richness of Truth in God for a moment so we may step into it briefly and gradually become acclimated to it, much as a very cold person must gradually become used to the warm waters of a bath. Paradox is one of the chief ways Christianity does this, and we learned it from our Lord.
When teaching, Jesus frequently employed parables. I once served a very wise parishioner who called parables “a device for comparing apples and oranges.” She was pointing out that in parables, the ordinary things and relationships of this world are used to contemplate and teach the extraordinary things of God. In much the same way, during the Advent season we place together, side-by-side, the very things the world says are incompatible: joy with penitence, peacefulness with excitement, the past with the future, contemplation with active preparation, time and eternity.
In doing this, we experience an opening—however brief—in the mystery of existence. We grow a little more in the knowledge of what God is like and what we are supposed to be like now that we have been baptized and claimed for God. When a person is baptized and takes Christ to be his or her Lord and Savior, that is only a beginning: before us lies a vast eternity of deepening love and knowledge, more like a treasured friendship or the best possible marriage than a contract or a course of studies. Advent is an annual reminder of this dimension of what it means to “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” as the Nicene Creed puts it.
One of the finest ways Advent does this—and there are many ways it seeks to do so—is by the use of a word we don’t usually associate with a penitential season (ah, paradox again!): Alleluia. This ancient praise-shout to God is one of the hallmarks of Advent, filling these days with a sense of both celebration and yearning for that which is in this world, as yet, incomplete. During the other great season of penitence—Lent—we fast from Alleluia, but in Advent we employ it with a certain zest, looking forward to the time when it will fill all things in victory, and tasting of that time through the Liturgy—wherein we encounter the victory of the Lamb described so powerfully in the Revelation to John. Once again, paradox: now, but not yet!
Christians need Advent because it is hard to live in paradox. It is so much easier to take the wrinkles and mysteries of faith and iron them flat, making them fit neatly into the pages of book or into a PowerPoint presentation. But we all know, deep down, that this is untrue and unworthy of God. It is we who much learn to adapt to reality, not reality to us. That reality, though, is not a riddle to be mastered. It is a relationship to be cherished, meant to grow forever.
And so Advent in its relative brevity may be seen as a sort of spiritual telescope connecting time and eternity, our finite nature to the infinite of God, our need for salvation and forgiveness with the abundance of God’s love and truth. Unlike a man-made telescope though, when we look through Advent’s telescope we look not into the distance or into the past of the universe, but into the eternal present of God. In preparing for the celebration of Christ’s First Coming in Bethlehem we are remembering or making present that reality—that God is always giving to us, always sharing and calling us to share in the Divine Life. When we look forward to the Second Coming, we are also remembering (!), making present a reality which has not come to pass in this world, but is already accomplished in God: the victory of communion over alienation, love over sin, life over death.
Because of all of this paradox, Advent is a bonanza for poets, artists, musicians, and preachers, because all of these people know (or should, at any rate) that it is only by entering into the paradoxical that we may contemplate the power and presence of God and thus grow more and more into the fullness of being truly human and truly alive.