In the northern hemisphere, Advent coincided with the onset of winter. As the days grew shorter, the weather colder, and as the earth began its annual shedding of vegetative life, people brought evergreens into their homes, which provided a hope that the earth had not yet died. In the early weeks of Advent, not so many candles were needed on the wreath, because the nights were not yet so long. But by the time the solstice arrived, on the shortest day of the year, more candles were necessary to provide adequate light, but also to rekindle hope.
Advent was originally a season designed to prepare people for the end. Christmas was dropped into the calendar later on, in part to upstage the pagan Saturnalia festivals that took place at the time of the solstice. Which meant that Advent became a season of preparation for Jesus’ birth. But before that, it joined nature in its annual journey toward death.
And yet – for the earth, death was never the end. The fields lay dormant for several months, only to flourish again with the coming of Spring. And in the Christian faith, the end has always been a gateway to a new beginning.
There is a lot of death around us, to the degree that many people think that we are approaching an end. There are scary signs and portents; there are more and more examples of people behaving badly; of institutions crumbling and networks unraveling. And more powers – across the world, that threaten to shut people down or lock people out because there are only so much good will and resources to go around.
The biblical prophecies that we hear in Advent present various visions of hope and harmony, abundance and peace. They may seem improbable – of wolves lying down with lambs, of nursing children putting their hands over the hole of an asp and not getting bitten. Those prophetic visions led people through crippling darkness and unspeakable calamity. The visions enabled them to hold on to God’s promise – to God’s hesed, which is Hebrew for steadfastness and faithfulness. But they not only held on to the promise; they became bearers of that promise as well.
God is at work in the world – healing, guiding, offering hope. Even when thing seem withering and barren. And God is inviting – inviting us to join God in doing God’s work in the world.
Faith is more than having a menu of beliefs and values. It is carrying those beliefs and values into the world’s darkness – not quietly, but fiercely, trusting that new life will come.