I've always enjoyed Christmas time.
At Christmas time I naturally find myself being really thankful for all that I have in my life. A loving family, albeit spread across the world. For my friends and community. For the experiences I've had this year.
I'm all for practicing thankfulness, at Christmas and throughout the year. But, over the last few years, I've realised that the Christian tradition doesn't see this season only as a time of celebration and thanksgiving - as wonderful and valid as those things are.
But this season of Christmas, of Advent, is a time of waiting.
It's a time in the annual calendar when we, through thoughtful heartfelt reflection, remind our souls that we're in waiting.
At one level, we're awaiting holiday and Christmas day and festive feasts. Many people will be looking forward to seeing family or friends or loved ones. We're looking forward to getting gifts and giving gifts. We're looking forward to our Christmas traditions: putting up the tree, singing Christmas carols, drinking mulled wine, watching Elf or Home Alone again - anyone?
But at a deeper level we track with the Christmas story in the Bible and we await the birth of Jesus. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament ends in a curious position. The Jewish people have returned from exile, but still seem to feel like they're in 'exile' from God even now that they've been able to return home. There's a growing awareness that the real exile they're facing is not only caused by the evil powers of Assyria and Babylon that had previously forced them away from their homelands (and place of worship at the temple in Jerusalem). But, even deeper and more concerning, was the exile caused by the evil powers of sin in their own hearts. They needed a deeper home coming. They needed forgiveness of sins, and redemption from their sinfulness. And they needed someone from outside themselves to do this.
And, it is with this hope that the Hebrew Bible ends, and waits... For 400 years. Awaiting one who would lead this people through a deeper, spiritual return from exile. They waited for one who would be their King and save them from the new political superpower: Rome. But even deeper than that, they awaited someone to save them from the rule of sin that reigns so deeply and dangerously in the human heart. The voices of the prophets dried up, as they waited, year after year. For help. For rescue. For redemption. For salvation.
And in this season - Advent - we track with that journey. We sit in solidarity and on watch. We join in. And we remember what and who humanity most desperately needs. We reflect on our shared need for rescue, redemption and salvation. In a sense, in this season, we look at the story of the gospels from the other side of history. Not from our side 2000 years later, but from before. With all the 'hopes and fears of all those years' that were carried within God's awaiting people.
This waiting, hoping and longing shapes our hearts and souls such that as Christmas dawns we arise with wonder and joy and delight and relief. God has made a way. God has brought redemption. God has brought a way of salvation, from our own sin-embroiled hearts and broken societies.
God has come. God has come. God has come.
But, there's a third, further layer of our waiting. In Advent we also allow our hearts to adopt a stance of awaiting Jesus in his final return. The Christian hope and belief is that not only has God come to us in human flesh in the person of Jesus. But Jesus will return again. This time, Jesus comes to usher in a full and complete recreation of the cosmos. All things, now bruised and battered by human brokenness and waywardness, to be restored and renewed and refreshed. There is undoubtedly a lot of mystery around what this will look and feel like. But we know that sin and death and evil will be 'cast into the fire' and dealt with in a final way. Our hope isn't to be zoomed off to some ethereal place in the clouds. But, to live forever within our present creation, finally transformed and restored and renewed.
It is in this future version of our home where God will wipe away every tear, undo every wrong and injustice. Where we now sit and grieve and wait, amidst much suffering and damage in our world, we also hope for a renewed reality, brought about in a final wondrous swoop as Jesus returns again one day.
And so, as Christmas sits close on our horizon today, we wait. We wait with eager, hopeful yet hungry hearts. We look around at our friends and family and feasts. We look back at the Baby Boy born of Bethlehem. And we look forward to the return of the Rightful Righteous Ruler.
We sit and wait. For Advent. For arrival.