Ministerial Musings: Advent

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope of the wrong thing.”

~ T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” (III)

What does Eliot mean here and what does it have to do with the beginning of Advent? The four Sundays of Advent are entitled hope, peace, love, and joy respectively, but this is about more than just the first day of this season of anticipation.

My earliest memories of Christmas involve the Christmas Eve parties my parents still host. While the adults dined on shrimp and meatballs and toasted the Yuletide with champagne and a sundry of cocktails, I would be shuffled off to bed far too early for me. “Santa is coming,” my mother would say. “You better go to bed or he’ll pass by our house.”

I’d head to my room — dejected — in my footie pajamas. Not being at the age of reason yet, I never stopped and thought, “So, Santa will only come by if I am asleep! He obviously won’t have a problem with my aunts, uncles, and neighbors (who are crowded in our kitchen and living room) seeing him. Evidently, I am the only one who will keep him at bay.”

In any event, Santa Claus came — and so did Christmas morning.

My mother was a sadist. She would make my brothers, sister, and I sit at the kitchen table and eat a full breakfast before we could open our presents. We could see into the living room from our kitchen table. The stockings had been filled with care and we could only see the upper half of the tree, because the base was crowded with brightly-covered, wrapped gifts. I can still remember shoveling Cream of Wheat down my throat ravenously and scalding my mouth, not because I was hungry, but because I wanted to get to my toys.

As soon as we were done we could go into the living room, but we had to open our stockings first. Yes, we had to unwrap crayons and underwear and penny candy before we could get to our new table hockey game and race-car set. If my mom had a long mustache, she would have sat there and twisting it while saying, “Yes, I love it. I LOVE IT!”

The smell of turkey wafted in from the kitchen. Johnny Mathis would be playing on the stereo. The bulbs on the tree sprayed the ceiling and walls with flickering reds, blues, and greens. Yes, Christmas was here.

The hope that fills the child’s heart as Christmas approaches is an expectancy like none other. And it isn’t just the hope we associate with commercialism. (“I’ve been a good boy all year. I wonder how many presents I’ll get!”) It is an expectancy filled with awe, wonder, and the belief that there is still magic in the world.

Advent is about hope. It is about anticipation.

To hope just for great savings on Black Friday and getting everything we want on Christmas morning are not the reasons for the season. That is the equivalent of Eliot’s hoping for the wrong thing. Hoping for the right thing is hoping for the arrival of Christ.

Interestingly enough, Advent is not about waiting for the birth of Christ. It is about Christ’s return at the end of time.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the start of the lectionary Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent this year:

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:24-27).

It sounds like that scary Book of Revelation, end of the world stuff that many of us reject. This has nothing to do with Christmas!

And that is absolutely right.

My problem with all this is that it is hard for me to think about Christ returning, not because I don’t believe in eschatology but because I think that Jesus is already here among us. He never left. The hope of Advent, therefore, is not so much about the hope of Christ’s birth or the hope of Christ’s return, but, maybe, it is about the hope of what IS, so that we can truly see ourselves as a people made in the image of God.

People are all too ready to be giving and altruistic when it comes to the holidays. We want to volunteer to work at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving. We want to give gifts to families in need at Christmas. But what about the other eleven months of the year?

When I was a student minister, I wanted to bring a youth group to serve a meal at a local homeless shelter north of Boston one Thanksgiving. When I called, the director of the shelter was irritated. “We get more than enough people to help us this time of the year,” he said. “Call me in July when we really need the help.”

He was right.

Hope springs eternal. It surrounds us. Maybe Advent is to prepare us for the hope we are to have the rest of the year.  It isn’t just what we find in the manger, or at the end of time, that is to give us hope. That would be hope for the wrong thing, to hearken back to Eliot. It is the multiple opportunities that come between these two events that frame the Christian faith and that call for our living expectancy — an expectancy that comes to fruition through our actions.

You are the hope others wait for during this season, and every season. You are the mouth and the arms of the Risen One who will bring a word of comfort to those who mourn and a warm embrace to those who sit in darkness.

Hope for the season, my friends, and hope beyond reason. Hope in what was, in what will be, and what is — and that which is is the intersection of God and you: all of your hopes, all of your dreams, all of your now.

Happy Advent!

John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is the religion columnist for The Lakewood Observer.  JT3 lives in Lakewood with his family.

John III Tamilio

John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is the religion columnist for The Lakewood Observer.  JT3 lives in Lakewood with his family.

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Volume 7, Issue 24, Posted 12:28 AM, 12.01.2011