“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17–18
The season of Christmas seems to begin earlier and earlier every year, even though Christmas itself falls on a fixed date near the end of December. This year I even heard a store playing Christmas carols at the end of October! The commercial pressures faced by retailers is the main driver behind this, and I can understand the economic realities that motivate them to expand their buying season. For most people, the Christmas spirit involves festivities, gift buying and an overall increase in consumption. However, we celebrate Christmas for an entirely different reason. We celebrate the love of God and His greatest gift: His only begotten Son, Jesus.
This gift of Jesus is indeed a wonderful reason to rejoice. So why are we in COGS not joining in the festive merriment by singing Christmas carols and putting up Christmas decorations from the beginning of December this year? Are we trying to counteract the crass commercialisation of Christmas by becoming dour, liturgical killjoys? By no means! The reason for this year’s standing instructions is because I want us as a church to reflect on the season of Advent as a way to help form us in our Christian discipleship. Let me explain.
Different cultures mark time in different ways. For example, the Western (or Gregorian) calendar takes its reference from the sun – or, to be exact, the time it takes for the earth to rotate around the sun. The Chinese calendar, on the other hand, uses the cycles of the moon primarily as a reference point. The Church calendar however, uses the life of Christ as the focal point in determining the liturgical year. This is intentional.
When a person becomes a Christian, they are called to begin a new life. This is more than just the metaphor of being “born again”. The values and concerns of Christians are quite different from those of the world. We measure success and significance in very different ways, and becoming a Christian means learning a whole new way of thinking, evaluating and living. The early Church Fathers understood this, and as a result came up with ways to help form new believers through a process called catechesis. It was a way in which the truths and realities of the Gospel were transmitted to those who were called out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the light of God. Unfortunately, nowadays it is thought of only in terms of preparing people for Baptism and Confirmation.
In reality, however, it takes more than a single course to form us in this new way of life and belief. Catechising believers is really a life-long process. And this is one of the things that the Christian calendar tries to do. It helps us remember key points in the life of Jesus while he walked amongst us. The different seasons in the Church year help us remember the significant events in His life and remind us to follow His example in our own lives. They are meant to help shape and recalibrate our beliefs and values. This is why we try to follow these liturgical seasons in our worship.
Advent is one such season. It starts the Christian calendar and is celebrated over the four Sundays that immediately precede Christmas. The word Advent is derived from the Latin word adventus which means “arrival” or “coming.” It most obviously points towards Jesus’ first coming when he was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem on the first Christmas day. It is also meant to be a time in which we as Christians look forward to his second coming. For this reason, the season is a time in which we examine our lives and “acknowledge and bewail” (1662 BCP) the sin which made His coming necessary. This is why the liturgical colour for the season is purple, which signifies repentance and preparation, just like in the season of Lent.
So, Advent looks back to His first coming in this way. But the season of Advent also directs our attention to the truth and reality of His promised return. We cannot emphasise one over the other. Without the first coming, there can be no second coming. If there is no second coming, then what Jesus began to do through His first coming makes no sense. While Jesus inaugurated his kingdom during his time on earth, it has still yet to be fully consummated at the present. We live between the times. We have a foretaste of what is to come, but it is still a pale reflection of the glorious end we anticipate. Advent reminds us that while we still live in the darkness of this world, there is something more than this to look forward to.
And so, we want to use this season to build the anticipation for the return of Jesus. This is why we hold back from rushing headlong into Christmas. Advent reminds us that this world is not our ultimate home. It points out that “light and momentary troubles” we face will one day pass away; that the evil of this world does not have the final word, and it will be judged and burned by fire. We wait in hope because God has already dethroned the principalities and powers on the cross and will at His second coming banish them for good.
This Christian vision is what gives us the strength and hope to do what we are called to be and called to do in the face of overwhelming odds. To bring the kingdom of God to the poor, downtrodden and hopeless. To work towards ushering in the kingdom of God. To stand up for what is right, even if it runs against the grain of the ways of the world. And yet while it may seem like all our efforts are still but a drop in the ocean of human misery, we keep on keeping on because we know “what is seen” is not all there is. That God is still on the move. And that in the end He will come to make all things new. So, in Advent we set our eyes “on what is unseen.”