Lights. Trees. Spaghetti. Putobumbong. Bibingka. Family. Friends. The music starts in the malls in September.
We love Christmas don’t we?
Norman Vincent Peale said, ‘Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.’ Christmas is more than a day and more than a moment. We call it a season. In the Philippines, the protestant Christian tradition tends to live with a certain sensitivity towards ancient Christian practice. Much of this historical practice is seen with suspicion and fear. Whether you are simply protestant, or have an additional title like Baptist, Charismatic or, Pentecostal, we tend to talk a lot of Christmas and little of Advent. But what makes Christmas meaningful, rich, and full is that it is the culmination of Advent. Without Advent, we lose the rhythm of the Great Story.
So let’s talk about Advent. Maybe what will help us work through this are some thoughts about sound, time, and spirit.
In your kitchen, if you are very quiet, you will hear a noise. It is a steady sound, a lingering, purring kind of noise that has no beginning and no end. That sound often ‘sung’ me to sleep as a child (still does if I am not careful). It varies in volume, but changes very little. It is a constant, steady noise and it goes on and on and on, hour after hour, day after day. To some it’s a ‘grating on your nerves’ sound. To others, ahem, it’s the sound of comfort.
And what is the source of this melody? There in the corner of your kitchen, it is the music of your refrigerator.
I am currently listening to the new Olafur Arnalds album (For Now I am Winter), which I’ve had on repeat for at least a week now. From the haunting melody, the sway and sighs of the first song, the album is full of noises. Drums, voices, strings, piano—the noises stop and start, come and go, they’re loud and quiet. Some notes sustain for a measure or two, others come and go within the second. The kick drum rumbles, the cymbals clang, the strings flutter. All those sounds work together to make something compelling, inspiring, beautiful, evocative, confrontative, urgent, hopeful, honest or peaceful—something that sounds stunning. The sounds become something calling us to follow somewhere. And so it is noise, it is sound — but it is a particular, intentional arrangement of those noises and sounds that make it music.
Two kinds of sound. Two variations of noise.
One we call music and the other we call ‘white noise’.
Time is a lot like sound. A song works because everything relates with a defined awareness of time. Music divides time into beats; giving time shape. Flow. Pattern. And Rhythm.
We’ve all experienced the terror of the dull. Overstated? Maybe. But you know what I am talking about, that endless cycle that haunts us when our days begin to blend into each other—wake up, shower, eat breakfast, brush teeth, go to school or work or the office, change another diaper, sit in traffic, wait in line, wait for the rain to stop, pay a bill, fill a tank, find something to eat and then repeat it all over again the next day. One day looks like the next. Everything starts to feel the same. Life begins to take the shape what might be described as the equivalent of ‘white noise’ (remember the refrigerator?).
And that, of course, takes us to the Exodus. (Didn’t see that coming, did you?) The story of the Jewish people being rescued from Pharaoh isn’t just a story about the God who rescues people from the forced labour of brick-making day after day. This is a story about the God who rescues people from all kinds of slavery.
A slavery that has roots in time.
If you were a slave in Egypt, your life was comprised of making bricks for the Pharaoh every day, all day. Your schedule? Bricks, bricks, bricks, eat, sleep, more bricks, bricks, bricks. Oh, and tomorrow? It will be just like today: bricks, bricks, bricks.
In the story found in the book of Exodus, the Israelites are rescued and what does God urgently instruct them to do as He frames out what freedom looks like? Take one Sabbath day per week. A day that doesn’t look like any other day. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh, don’t. Why is this so monumental?
This is a gift of rhythm.
Life, before, was a never ending set of sevens. Seven days a week. Seven days a week. Again and again. And. Again.
Life had no rhythm. But now, here at the beginning of freedom, God breaks up the time. It’s a day set apart. Now there is a measure of time. Six days of work. One day of rest. Six and one. Six and one. Almost as if it were arranged to a beat: six and one, six and one, six and one.
We need rhythm in our time. It’s what makes one moment different from another. It gives shape and color and form to all of life. The first Christians understood this. They understood that time, like sound, is best when broken up, divided and arranged into patterns and rhythms. And so they created the church calendar as a way to organize the year. It was something that would bring rhythm, expectation, and variety to our days. It was a way to find a song in the passing of time.
Most of us are quite familiar with the season of Lent. For the seven weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday, we are confronted with much sober awareness of the frailty, the sin and the smallness of man. It starts on Ash Wednesday when ashes are traced on the foreheads of thousands in the shape of the cross, a physical reminder of the origin of man in the dust. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ is the phrase. From there we come, and to there we will go.
Ancient Christian tradition and the scriptures teach us a very simple truth: If we want to really live, then we have to start by facing our death, our weakness, and our smallness. Millions of people around the globe spend seven weeks facing this death, despair and doubt, entering into it with the fullness of being—heart, mind, emotions—leaving nothing behind. They do this for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple truth that Sunday comes after Friday. Only when we have faced “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” are we ready to throw a Resurrection party. A party worthy of the occasion of great Grace.
As Robert Farrar Capon puts it: Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.
Sunday is when grief, sorrow, and darkness meet the morning. When we run wildly from the open tomb, out of breath yet blowing trumpets and dancing to a song that resonates with all creation in three resounding words: “He is risen.”
Wait wait wait! The Resurrection is just the beginning. Then we celebrate the season of Pentecost, the celebration of the Spirit, the One who moves in mysterious ways. The Presence of God at work in and through His people. The reality of the Risen Lord Jesus manifesting in our lives, in our relationships, in the places and moments where no power on earth can help. It is the rhythm of remembering that we are not alone. That He wanted us to walk in His anointing. To be flesh and blood anthems that proclaim Isaiah 61: preach good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners… announce the year of his grace – a celebration of God’s destruction of our enemies – and to comfort all who mourn! Pentecost is about the reality that He is here in ways that are bigger than language and so we look for Him in every moment of every day.
And so there is a destination and an origin on this journey.
There is a rhythm within the time and we experience it together, as a people. A community of believers. A church.
The Spirit, it turns out, is a lot like sound and time. The first thing the Spirit does in creation is move. That knowledge hints, suggests, and awakens us to the reality that the deepest matters of the Spirit are constantly moving, shifting and transforming. The life of the Spirit is a dynamic reality at work within us, calling our whole being into a state of reflection. A reflection of the one who is Peace.
Sometimes we’re exhausted, other times we’re overwhelmed with doubt. Sometimes we’re on top of the world and everything is going smoothly, other times we find ourselves standing in the midst of the wreckage, surrounded by smoldering flames, wondering how it all went so wrong.
What the rhythm of the church calendar does is create space for Jesus to meet us in the full range of human experience, for God to speak to us across the spectrum, in the good and the bad, in the joy and in the tears. This is the tragedy of the loss of the lament, songs of sorrow, within modern worship. It is deeply confusing to be a people who only sing happy victory songs when we are together (and force sad and broken people to join us). We fail to consider that half of the Psalms are laments. The awareness that grief and joy live close together should help us understand what it means to live life. The Bible is not a collection of war chants from victors—it is the Great Story of God as He redeems people. AND the redemption reflects the reality of an intensely diverse amount of conditions, emotions and life. Sometimes we are confused about what God is doing, other times we are madly in love. The issue, for the children of Israel, was not just about getting them out of Egypt—it was also about getting the Egypt out of them. The same is true for us.
This journey of faith is about rescuing us from sameness, dullness, a flat-lined routine, reminding us that however we’re feeling, whatever we’re experiencing, wherever we are, the Spirit waits to meet us there.
And so we arrive at Advent.
Advent is a season. Lots of us know about Christmas. But do we see that this is about a season; a whole period of time where we have specific cry, a particular intention, a reason.
Advent is about anticipating the birth of the Christ. It’s about a longing, a desire, a ‘that which is yet to come’, a ‘that which isn’t here yet’. And so we wait, with GREAT expectation.
We wait together. With an ache.
Because all is not right.
I was asked recently, ‘why has Advent come to mean so much to you?’ My answer? Because distrust, suspicion, cynicism… these words have come to describe the new religious expectation of our world.
Whatever it is, this religious expectation teaches that ‘it’ isn’t as good as it seems. ‘It’ will let you down. ‘It’ will betray you. That idea? That institution? That church? That politician? That faith? That hope? That authority figure? They’ll all let you down. Whatever you do, don’t get your hopes up. Whatever you think it is, whatever it appears to be, it will burn you… just give it time.
Advent confronts this corrosion of the heart with the insistence that God has not abandoned you, hope is real and something is coming.
Advent charges into the temple of cynicism with a whip of hope, overturning the tables of despair, driving out the priests of that jaded cult, announcing there’s a new day and it’s not like the one that came before it. “He is coming,”
Advent whispers in the dark. “Look, the dawn approaches”.
Old man Simeon stands in the temple, holding the Christ child, rejoicing that now he can die because what he’d been waiting for actually arrived.
And so each December, we enter into a season of waiting, expecting, and longing. The Spirit meets us in the ache.
We ask God to enter into the deepest places of cynicism, bitterness and hardness where we have stopped believing that tomorrow can be better than today.
We open up. We soften up. We turn our hearts in the direction of that day. That day, after the long long wait, when the baby cries His first cry and we, surrounded by shepherds and angels and everybody in between, celebrate that sound in time that brings our spirits what we’ve been longing for.
Immanuel. God with us.