Advent's Longing

"When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us.  The hardest heart is softened.  We recall our own childhood.  We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother.  A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart.  But there is something more --- a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father."

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in an Advent sermon, Dec. 2, 1928)

Eighty-one years after he spoke the words from a pulpit in Barcelona, German pastor and theologian Bonhoeffer's words still echo, across decades of war, oppression, and injustice, across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and nation, across generations and gender.  Still, he captures a sense we may all have as we approach Christmas, as we know the tension between what is and what is not.

In 1928 Bonhoeffer was 22 years old, appointed Assistant Pastor to a German-speaking congregation in Spain.  His text was Revelation 3:20, the familiar "I stand at the door and knock."  His first words were "Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait."  And yet, at 22, what did he know about waiting?  And how could he speak any words that might offer spiritual comfort or challenge when even he was not yet a believer?  After all, he himself did not become a Christian, by his own account, until 1931, when he said he "discovered the Bible." And yet God can speak, even across time, through young, unregenerate pastors.  He may not have understood the ramifications of what he said, but God still used him.

As you grow older Advent becomes more and more about waiting, and there is an increasing sense of longing --- even blessed longing --- that what is to come will be what is, that wrong will be righted, that all all things will be set right, that the groaning of creation Paul writes about in Romans 8:22 will resolve in the rejoicing in the Heavens of Revelation 19.  Our homelessness becomes more poignant, our pilgrimage more urgent, our strangeness and alienation from the world more intense.  We wait.  "Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait," he says.

In the Summer of 1991 my wife and I traveled to Prague, in the Czech Republic, for two weeks for a mission trip devoted to street evangelism.  I have never been more homesick as an adult.  Very few people in newly liberated Prague spoke English.  Signs and menus were in Czech, a consonant-rich language full of hazard for those like us who have to guess at the meaning of words.  The disposition of the people could only be described as melancholy.  They had plenty of time to talk, but if you were looking for affirmation by smile or word you would likely not receive it.  We walked the Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, and Hus Square and, but for each other, felt deeply alone, aliens and strangers in their world.  Despite what we were there to do --- meet people and engage them in conversations about spiritual things --- we longed for home.  We actively waited for the day we could return to the familiar.  And when we did return we felt, even in the cosmopolitan air of the Atlanta airport, that we were home, really home.

If I slow down and reflect, if I slip out of this season of buying, partying, and doing all that I am supposed to do --- if I just become still and listen, then I can know what Advent is about.  It is not about happiness.  Reflect on the world outside and inside, about the depth and breadth of sin in the world and in ourselves, and the feeling you have is a troubling one, a sense of wanting to return to a idyllic time of innocence in the past, perhaps, but more than that, to a future time of blessedness, a time when there are no tears, no pain, and no death, when lions lay down with lambs, when we wait no more.

"The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come.  For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger.  God comes.  The Lord Jesus comes.  Christmas comes.  Christians rejoice!"

So slow down, I tell myself.  Reflect on what is.  Listen and hear a voice across the years that resonates with our own experience, our own troubled souls, our own blessed longing for home.  God, Bonhoeffer said, is the one knocking at the door of our heart.  "The cries of the marketplace and of those who sell shoddy goods are all too loud.  But the knocking goes on and, despite the noise, we hear it at last."  What shall we do?  As Bonhoeffer points out, when we open the door, we will be troubled, afraid because we are sinners, afraid because we have let in the Judge, and yet "[i]t is only by facing up to the fearfulness of the event that we begin to understand the incomparable blessing.  God comes into the midst of evil and death, to judge the evil in the world --- and in us.  And while he judges us, he loves us, he purifies us, he saves us, and he comes to us with gifts of grace and love."

"Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait."  So, may we wait well.

[All quotes are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons, as edited and translated by Edwin Robertson.  I recommend the book.]