When Elizabeth travelled to Mary’s house, the Spirit of God was moving mightily, and as always this meant things would be turned upside down. And Mary sang a song full of the moment:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
Mary knew “God as Savior” as the Coming One who would rescue his people from their low estate.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
He has brought down the powerful from their throws and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
Salvation for Mary meant that the ordering powers of the world would be turned upside down and that a new day would dawn full of mercy for those who honor God and his reign.
This is the meaning of Advent. This is the story of God as the Coming One who disrupts the world as we know it for the sake of an alternative world in line with the realities of the coming future of God. Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God as good news and demonstrated the nature of that reign by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, healing the sick, casting out demons, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and calling disciples who would leave the realities of the old world behind to serve the coming future of God. This is the advent story. God has come and is coming, offering us the hope of a world not given to us by the principalities and powers of the age.
Jurgen Moltmann distinguishes between two picture of the future. The first he calls futurum, which is the outcome we expect because of the way things are now. The future is a story of progress. In other words, the future is only the natural outcome of the way things already are. Adventus, on the other hand, is not simply the outworking of the past and present into the future, but the surprising proposal that an altogether different future is breaking into the present. Futurum perpetuates the status quo and tends to conserve the relationships of power that currently exist. Adventus turns the powers upside down and offers real hope for those who have been excluded. It is a future made possible by the stirring of the Spirit of God. Mary sang of adventus, of the possibility of a different future for those of “low estate,” including herself.
So, Advent is a story of discontinuity. It strikes me that it has become possible to tell the story of Christmas as a story of continuity. I resist the ever-earlier signs of green and red and tinsel that pop-up to mark the season. As many have pointed out, its not hard to tie the Christmas spirit to the spirit of consumerism which will spread out as far as we will let it. It’s the time of year that we give ourselves permission to indulge our acquisitive selves. It’s the time of the year that most keeps our economy going, that gives us some sense of what the future holds. Maybe more than any other time, it keeps the world as we know it a predictable world, which is a world ultimately without hope. Maybe it’s just me, but its beginning to look a lot like futurum everywhere we go.
For those of us from a liturgically deprived tradition, we give the season religious meaning by looking back to the manger and by having Christmas pageants and by marveling that God became just like us. But there is a different religious sensibility to be cultivated in this season in relation to Advent, that sees God’s coming as strange and surprising, and because of that offers real hope for a different kind of world. As a collection, I find the lectionary readings connected to Advent as some of the strangest in the Bible. I can’t wait to get to the time around Christmas where Linus reads about “shepherds who kept watch of their flocks by night” on a Charlie Brown Christmas. But Advent texts are not only about mangers and shepherds and wise men. They are also about the disrupting force of the coming future of God where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
It might be a good question to ask, which story has become good news for you, Advent or Christmas?