A Homily for Vespers on the first Wednesday in Advent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We tend to think of Advent as a long countdown to Christmas. That’s what this wreath is all about, right? Light a candle each week, then the big one on Christmas Eve.
That’s the origin of the tradition. We tend to think that Jesus lit candles to mark the days until his birthday and that we’ve done this for thousands of years, but the Advent wreath only dates back to the 19th century when a German pastor working with children.
“Pastor Klaus, Pastor Klaus, is it Christmas yet?”
“Nein! No! Not yet! Stop pestering me!” And so he took a wagon wheel, slapped some candles on it, and told the kids, “Here. We’ll light a candle each day, and when they’re all lit, it’s finally Christmas. So stop asking!” It quickly evolved into the four candles we know today, then moved from the home into the sanctuary.
Or those cute little cardboard calendars that, even though they’re designed for children, I still insist on buying for myself every year: starting on December 1st, you open a small flap and pull out a piece of (admittedly mediocre) chocolate each day until Christmas.
BuzzFeed published an article that really gets to the heart of how we view Christmas. They put forward a list of “crazy German Christmas traditions,” writing: “The so-called Advent Sundays are another great way to get hyped for actual Christmas!”
(As an aside, the same article also lists Christmas Eve services as a “great way to to kill time” “as the local pastor rant[s] about people that only visit the church on Christmas,” so I’m not sure I trust their expertise on Germany, Advent, or Christmas.)
But as Christmas becomes more cultural and less religious, and as it creeps earlier and earlier into the year, it also becomes more closely tied to Advent. These four weeks become more and more about building up anticipation for the 25th, almost as though the twelve days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany) shifted forward to become the four weeks of Christmas.
In this understanding, we miss more than half the picture. As our Advent texts make clear, this is not a season for trimming the tree and getting the Nativity set ready and getting “hyped for actual Christmas.” It’s not about our preparation at all. Rather, it’s about Christ’s coming — not just in Bethlehem but at the end of the age.
That’s why we read from the end of Saint Luke’s Gospel on Sunday and will spend two weeks with John the Baptist, that wild and apocalyptic prophet. It’s why, as we read from Isaiah over the next few weeks, the emphasis isn’t on “The virgin shall be with child.” It’s not until the very end that we’ll arrive at “a root from the stump of Jesse.”
Our texts over the coming weeks emphasize something else entirely: our abject state and our absolute need for God. Quoting a father sitting in a Yemeni hospital while his daughter wasted away from starvation, Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge summarizes Advent this way: “We’re just waiting for doom or for a breakthrough from heaven.”
Advent is less about our preparation and more about our waiting — waiting for God to act, waiting for light to pierce the darkness, waiting for something we can never achieve ourselves.
And so yes, we wait to celebrate Christ’s birth, that glorious time when God became fully human and experienced our own desperation in his own time on earth before promising us life through his glorious resurrection. But we are also waiting for a time when Christ will come again in final glory.
Tonight’s chapter of Isaiah was written during such a time of waiting: as the Assyrian Empire, known for their wanton cruelty, left a swath of destruction in its wake, the people of Judah sat, terrified that they were next. It was the Assyrians who destroyed the Northern Kingdom, virtually eradicating ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. The view in Jerusalem was dire. The people had no choice but to wait for either doom or a breakthrough from heaven.
Into that setting walks the prophet, foretelling not only Judah’s survival but a coming day when war ceases, when nations no longer make war, when weapons of destruction can be turned into tools for creation.
It’s not a day we can bring about on our own, try as we might. We can only ever, by God’s grace, be a preview of that age.
During this season of Advent, we wait, watch, and pray, hoping for the grace to endure the trials of this age. We wait, not for the twenty-fifth day of December but for the day of the Lord. We wait, knowing that the breakthrough is coming — because we have seen it already in Bethlehem. We know that God has come into the world, that God is active in the world, and that God will triumph over the powers of this world. In this hope, we wait, strengthened by our expectation in God’s triumph, preparing not as we ought but as we are able, trusting that on that last day, God will act to bring about an age free from war, famine, disease, sin, and death. And on that day, we will climb up the mountain of the Lord and walk in God’s ways.