“Advent is definitely not for sissies”, writes Fleming Rutledge, in her striking new book on Advent. What does she mean when she says that Advent is “not for sissies”?
Advent is not for sissies because Advent is the season in the church calendar when we can most squarely face the hard realities of the world. Throughout much of church history, Christians have actually focused on the second comingof Christ at Advent. During Advent, Christians have set their sights on Christ’s return, when he will come like a purifying fire to sweepingly rectify all that is wrong in the world, and to bring widespread peace, wholeness, and flourishing on earth—“far as the curse is found”. When we long for Christ’s return, an other-worldly intrusion to set things right, it allows us to look squarely in the face of suffering in the world, and soberly describe the reality before us: we are not at peace.
Far from Shalom
The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, describes more than just an absence of obvious fighting. Shalomdescribes a state of affairs where there is joyful flourishing, harmony, and fullness in all of God’s creation.
Oh, how far we are from shalom in December 2019! Not when there’s war and famine in Yemen, where children the age of my son, Piper, are so famished they have rib cages that look like insects’ exoskeletons. Not when suicide is the second leading cause of death for American teenagers. Not when pornography addictions ravage marriages. It doesn’t matter who you are, something will hit close to home: Estranged relatives, prodigal children, emotionally-distant, workaholic dads, crushing loneliness, cancer diagnoses, bullying at school, last week’s hurtful gossip—you name it. We are so far from flourishing.
But because Christ has already come once and has inaugurated the process of setting right the curse, we can wait—and act—with hope, even as we look reality in the face.
Peace or Sentimentality?
Around Christmas, however, we’re often tempted to deny reality, and embrace sentimentality. This season, of all times, is when many of us are most tempted to trade our birthright as Christians, the promise of real, even if eventual peace for the “red stew” of sentimentality—a well-decorated home, smiles at the Christmas open house, snuggling under your favorite blanket with a cup of hot chocolate, while your family members open presents one-by-one.
None of this is inherently wrong, of course, and we should thank God, “who gives us all things richly to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). But we shouldn’t mistake a cozy Christmas morning, and the candles above the mantle that spell the word “peace” for actual peace on earth.
Sentimentality is…an early arrival at a mock state of innocence – Flannery O’Conner
Sentimentality insulates us from the world as it is, subconsciously telling us we’ve “arrived” at peace, when we should be waiting eagerly, longingly, even painfully for the King of Peace’s great arrival—and our own religious subculture can make us some of the worst offenders. The prophet Jeremiah decried the religious leaders of his day for this “early arrival” at peace:
They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying ‘peace, peace,’ (shalom, shalom) when there is no peace. – Jeremiah 6:14
This Christmas, let’s trade sentimentality with a longing for true peace on earth. The King of Peace came, and will come again!