Advent: coming or arrival, from Latin adventus, meaning arrival, or approach [prefix ad, meaning to, with, or towards, plus verb venire, meaning to come].
The church takes seven weeks to prepare for Easter, and it is called Lent. We take four weeks to prepare for Christmas, and it is called Advent.
Advent is the season when we wait for the coming of God. It is a season of darkness, of remembering what life is like without light. That is why there are four Advent candles, and why we only light one each week: we are watching the lonely flames, watching the unlit candles, using this physical practice to remind us of the unseen world, where there is no light apart from God. This Sunday one candle, next Sunday one more, and in our helpless darkness, we wait, holding our breath, as God draws close and close and closer.
But maybe you say, “Time out. Jesus has come already, hasn’t He? Am I supposed to pretend, every Advent, that God has not already come to live in me, to turn my darkness into light?” And the answer is, yes and no.
You are not supposed to pretend anything. This is about naked honesty, about learning to believe. You are not all light inside yet; there is still darkness in you, and you know it. Advent is the season of admitting our darkness again, of becoming freshly aware that what light there is, inside us, is not of our own making. It is the season of stopping, of being still, of giving up on our attempts to fabricate substitutes for light. It is the frightening and vulnerable prayer, God, I’m alone here. I can’t see. The dark is eating me alive. Please, God, please come, and come quickly or there will be nothing left of me.
Most of the seasons on the church calendar are about being still, because it is what we humans are constantly forgetting to do. We want to accomplish things to fix things and become self-reliant to figure out the rules and win the game and impress the whole world with our cleverness. So when we hear “prepare,” we rub our hands and shift into high gear, we cast about for projects, we think, You want me to get ready? I’ll be ready for you, God. Just wait. I’ll do self-improvement like no one ever has before.
But the Advent kind of Preparation is not about self-improvement. It is about stillness and surrender and confessing our awful need. It is about a journey into the part of ourselves that sees things as they really are, the part that doesn’t scheme, that doesn’t pretend we are great and powerful. The part—however small—where God’s image is alive.
We are not preparing for great achievement during these four weeks. We are preparing to admit that we are nothing without God, that we are utterly dependent. And here is how we prepare: by admitting how childishly we pray, that we think only of ourselves, that we forget God’s past faithfulness and stake our whole faith on each new demand: If you care, God, you will give me this. We prepare by admitting our unbelief, our confusion and anger and doubt, our hopelessness, our ingratitude. We prepare by learning to be honest.
Julian of Norwich was a medieval anchoress, which means she lived a life of almost total seclusion in order to devote herself to God. This is a prayer she wrote: “God, I do not love you. I do not even want to love you. But I want to want to love you.”
That’s where we are, as human beings: many “wants” away from God. “I want to want to love you” sounds pretty weak. But it is all we have, because we are weak; there is no strength in us apart from God. We are like candles with no flame, praying, Come light us.
Which is why the angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy”—because God has come, in spite of our feebleness and our ingratitude.
That is why we’re here, waiting, preparing for the One who has come and who will come again. And as we wait, we burn, with a flame that is not ours. We shine, in spite of our own darkness, with the fire of God.