Why is it that Advent is not merely a time of mirthful exuberance? After all, the event we are anticipating and waiting for – the birth of Jesus – is a happy event.
Advent is, to be sure, a time of joyful expectation, but it is not just that. It is much, much more. It is tinged, it is colored with a certain sense of “Lord, have mercy on me.” Why?
To realize why this is, consider the attitudes of the two main figures which Christians have associated with Advent for the last 1600 years. First, consider John the Baptist, known in the Eastern tradition as “John the Forerunner.”
Was John exuberantly excited about Jesus? I am sure that at one level he was, but the impression we get is that John was also deeply shaken by the coming of this Jesus. He said, “When he comes, I will not even to worthy to relate to him as a slave would to his master: I will not even be worthy to untie his sandals.” He echoed the cataclysmic picture painted by Isaiah, a picture which is breathless in its anticipation of justice and salvation, but which also senses the shaking of the foundations of everything we think we know. When this Messiah comes, he will turn our worlds upside down; he will cut us to the quick.
Profound joy, mixed with deep and sober penitence.
Consider the Virgin Mary. Was Mary excited about the Redeemer of her people whose arrival was imminent? I am sure that at one level she was. But she was also barreled over with penitent humility. “How can these things be? … Here I am, your slave; have your way with me, according to your word.” Sure Mary was prostrate as she uttered these words to St. Gabriel.
Why this sober aspect of Advent? Because, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, when Jesus comes into the world it is unplanned, overwhelming, making a colossal difference. It satisfies out deepest longings, but we don’t know what it will involve, other than risk and pain, along with the restoration.
And so we can respond to Jesus by saying “No, thanks. I prefer my own darkness,” or we can say “Yes, I will take you, along with the risk and the pain.”
Either way, this is sobering if not scary stuff.