Advent begins

I have a strong memory of looking forward to holidays when I was a child. My birthday stood out each year. It was in June, not long after we got out of school for summer vacation. Mine was the only birthday in my family in June, so it also stood apart from other family events. Our mother used to make some pretty fancy birthday cakes, so I knew there would be a surprise and a treat at the end of the meal. Then, of course, there were the presents. I can remember a few. I got a bicycle for my sixth birthday. Mostly I’ve forgotten the birthday presents, however.

The end of December was a golden season for family holidays. Our parents’ wedding anniversary was December 15. They usually celebrated by going to Billings, a city 80 miles away. We knew that part of the trip would be Christmas shopping. I have a brother whose birthday is December 24, so there were no early Christmas celebrations for our family. Then our father’s birthday came on December 28. One of the traditions in our family was for one of us to purchase a bag of chewy orange slice candies. I don’t think these had very much actual fruit in them. They were soft and chewy like a gumdrop and covered in sugar. As soon as he opened the package, they would be passed around the table and we each would get one. The treat was repeated daily at dinner until the candies were gone.

New Years came on the heels of dad’s birthday and I had two brothers with January birthdays, so the celebrations continued. Other family members had their birthdays spread around the calendar, so there were frequent family celebrations.

I can remember lying in my bed at night anticipating whichever celebration was next with fantasies about how it might go. As I got older, the celebrations continued, but my excitement faded a bit. I still enjoy holidays, but somehow it isn’t quite the same as when I was a child.

Today is the beginning of Advent. It is the first day of a new year in the Christian calendar. Our readings return to the gospel of Matthew this year. The gospel has a structure that roughly follows the cycle of Jewish holidays, so a careful reading of the texts reminds a student of the cycle of observances that was a part of Jesus’ life.

Advent is an interesting season. We are called to focus on preparation and anticipation. It begins with the vision of the prophets of a world that is radically different from the everyday realities of this life. In the vision, people live at peace with one another without war or violence. There is no need for courts and punishments because people understand what is right and do it. Justice is established in the hearts of every person and injustice disappears.

Like an adult growing out of childhood celebrations, we have come to the point where we hear of the prophetic vision but don’t expect its fulfillment in our generation. We know that injustice will continue. We understand that violence still occurs. We compromise on our vision and seek ways of surviving in an imperfect world. Too often we enter the season of Advent with no real expectation that things will change at all.

It may be our attitude that leaves us most in need of the season of Advent. When we are unable to believe that anything will really change, we are most in need of the poetic words of the prophets to remind us that the vision remains. The peaceable kingdom isn’t just a fantasy about an impossible world. It is the way that God intends for us to live.

Advent, at its best, is a season of recommitment to the basic principles of Christian living. It is the season to ask ourselves what the world would be like if we really lived out the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. How would our world be different if we truly loved our enemies and prayed for those who persecute us? These aren’t esoteric and elusive concepts. They are not pie-in-the-sky ideals. They are real principles that offer peace and freedom in the everyday living of our lives. The visions of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus are real world possibilities. That is what makes Advent such a significant season. It reminds us of what is possible if we dedicate ourselves to living lives of faith.

It is a new year. It is an opportunity to begin fresh. Advent can inform not only my preaching and teaching, but also the way I live my life day to day. I know that there have been many times when I have been silent, when a word might have made all the difference. I know that I have harbored dark thoughts about those with whom I disagree instead of praying diligently for their health and safety.

I not only believe in peace, I know that peace is possible. Although my influence on political processes and world leaders is minimal at best, the way I choose to live my life can make a big difference. I am capable of working for peace in many different arenas and through a myriad of relationships with others. Peace is at the core of the vision of the prophets and one of the fundamental commitments of Advent. I come to Advent this year with a renewed commitment to peace.

Recovering the excitement of my childhood is probably not possible, but I still find myself, on occasion, lying in my bed and not sleeping. Instead of worrying, I could invest that time in imagining a world at peace and praying for that world to come. Perhaps recovery of the vision is as critical as any other part of dedicating our lives to peace. We have to imagine a world at peace in order to work for it.

Blessings to you as you begin this season. May you join me in envisioning a world at peace.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!