What's Tony Thinking

Advent and Grace


Advent, the four Sunday season before Christmas, brings grace in two ways.

First, it reminds us that we aren’t yet in full-on holiday mode. Advent is a time of preparation, though that preparation has a different quality than the world around us now observes. Following Thanksgiving, it is as if a switch has been flipped and — zap — “It’s the happiest time of the year!” Or at least it is supposed to be. Some of us respond to such imperatives by going contrarian. We get cranky.

The imperative to suddenly feel joyful is a form of the Law, which is the opposite of Grace. The Law is all, “you musts and you shoulds.” “It’s Christmas, the happiest time of the year, you should feel happy! What’s wrong with you?” That last bit ladles on an added dollop of guilt and shame.

Advent moves toward Christmas more gradually, more reflectively and without the imperative of forced cheer. It allows us space for the grumpy feelings if that’s what we’ve got. The Advent watchwords are “watch,” “wait,” and “listen.” The darkness isn’t so much something to be overcome by plugging in lots of lights and turning up the volume on the music. We wait in the darkness, lighting one candle one week, two the next and so on. We listen to minor key pieces, like “I Wonder as I Wander.”

In this sense, Advent gives us permission for the usual human mix of emotions that accompany this season. Maybe a greater love for our fellows wells up within us. Or we may feel some sadness about those no longer with us. Or both?

Perhaps there’s a tingle of anticipation as we catch the aroma of roasting chestnuts or see cars passing with trees atop their roofs? Or we may also feel an edge of anger at the way we are manipulated by those playing on our emotions to make us buy things that promise, falsely, to bring happiness and love. Or we feel both?

Advent doesn’t ask us to suddenly throw the switch to the bright side or deliver an imperative of uninterrupted good cheer, which no one can really pull off — although we may try by upping alcohol consumption!

The second way that Advent has a grace dimension to it is that Advent doesn’t require us to pretend that suddenly all evil and suffering are no more, whether because Jesus is coming or because “It’s Christmastime!!” Often, it seems, some especially awful stuff happens at just this time of year. The terrorist bombing of an airplane full of holiday travelers. A gunman opening fire at the company Christmas party. A school bus full of children hitting an icy patch and going off a mountain road.

Advent does not ask us to pretend that all evil and suffering are either miraculously over or even that a temporary truce is now universally observed — because it won’t be.

Advent tells the truth about our situation. Christ has come. Grace has entered the world, freely offered to all. But the powers of sin and evil continue to assail us and may even, in times of hoped for goodness and love, intensify their assault. Luther said, “When the Word of God is alive, evil spirits are set in motion.”

We live “between the times” leaning towards God’s promised future and consummation of all things (see last Sunday’s sermon). We live between Advents, the already of the first coming and the not yet of final consummation. Our task is live as faithfully and graciously as, by God’s grace, we can manage in this time between, a time when we “see through a glass darkly.”

Speaking of grace, we wrapped up our webinar on Paul Zahl’s book Grace in Practice with a visit from the author last week. Here’s a link to that closing session. Zahl has some pretty tough things to say about the church, especially the “higher” up in the ecclesiastical/ denominational food chain we may go. I’m afraid he’s right that the church especially in its most institutionally self-protective mode fails to practice the grace it preaches.

So we look for the intrusions of God’s grace, as Tillich said, “here and there, now and then.” And God does not fail us.


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