“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down.” Is. 64:1
The Church’s faith and proclamation seldom clashes as sharply with the world as in the early days of December. The world is well into its “holiday season,” a time of meaningless jollity, excessive consumption, and a sentimental delight in the vague pleasantries of the comfortable home and the stable family.
But the Church is keeping Advent. We sit with those “who dwell in deep darkness” and follow the Baptist out into the desert. We call for the Lord to come with power and set this sad and broken world to rights. We scan the distant mountains for the first rays of the coming dawn.
You might well see the difference by contrasting a secular holiday song like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” with the much darker sensibilities of our Advent hymns—“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,” or in the words of a lesser-known treasure of medieval verse:
The world is very evil;
The times are waxing late;
Be sober and keep vigil;
The Judge is at the gate;
The Judge that comes in mercy,
The Judge that comes with might,
To terminate the evil,
To diadem the right.
This, of course, is the truth that our secular jollity refuses to face. The world, indeed, is very evil. The righteous suffer, the weak are oppressed. The proud generally do as they please. And part of the evil is that the world’s well-meaning solutions to all these ills never truly succeed.
And yet, the Lord will rend the heavens and come down. There will be justice and peace on the earth, and if we love the truth, we must call for it earnestly: “Even so, Lord, quickly come.”
The challenge of Advent for people like most of us is that we have managed to insulate our lives from the jagged edges of the world’s evil. We live in the world of cozy fireplaces and bulging stockings, not out on the cold streets, where stray bullets fly. We should pray for His return, “the Judge that comes with might.” But we’re tempted to see that as a distraction, if not an affront.
It’s the poor, the persecuted, those in prison who can teach the rest of us how to keep Advent. We would do well to take up spending some time with them if we want to learn to long for justice and truth. At least we should pray for them at this time, and give what we can to soften their pain.
Someone remarked to me this week that the Christmas season will feel different this year. The headlines are flooded with news of terrorist plots and a worldwide refugee crisis, and racial tensions and drug addiction rates in our own nation seem higher than ever. Perhaps it’s easier than ever for us to see how intractable and complex the world’s problems really are, how deep a shadow sin and death cast over us all. The complacent sentimentality of the secular “holiday season” will ring even hollower this year. The world may be more ready than ever to see the meaning of Advent’s hope. We long for One who has promised so much more than toasty chestnuts and tinseled trees. May He come quickly.