It has always struck me as ironic that the beginning of the church year comes before the end of the calendar year. Especially this year, everyone is looking forward to putting an end to this debacle we know as 2020. But in the church, we’re already in the new year!
The season of Advent began last Sunday and will continue for four consecutive Sundays, culminating in the festival of Christmas. The word Advent, first used in the 12th century for this purpose, means “to come into being.” It is a period of waiting and reflection, a time of expectancy, a pregnant pause before the celebration of the birth of Christ. It comes deep in the darkness of midwinter, quite near the winter solstice, when the night is as long as it will ever be and the day as short.
It rather seems as though 2020 has already been one looooong Advent. We have spent the better part of this year waiting, if not in darkness, then in isolation, masked and socially distant. We have felt this waiting acutely, but never more so than we do in this season, when the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s, so typically filled with the love and laughter of friends and family, ring silent instead. There has been expectation, but with each month that has passed with no end to the pandemic in sight, that expectation has become harder and harder to bear.
But there is always an end to waiting, even when that end is not what we thought it would be. For those in Advent, hope surprises us even before the stroke of midnight clicks December 31 over to January 1. It comes instead quietly, in the darkness, a tiny light born in the murky dimness of a stable in Bethlehem. We celebrate it on December 25, but the hope that comes with the birth of Jesus is not limited to one day. Rather, it heralds the beginning of something newer and brighter than even a new year. It is a new life. And the hope that is realized in it is not the end product, not just a gift to open up, play with for a while, and then toss aside for the next shiny thing. Instead it is a new way of being, of looking at the world. It is a hope that endures.
That is why I embrace the irony of beginning the church year before the calendar year ends. We all long for the end of this year and, we pray, this pandemic. But hope, this enduring hope wrapped in swaddling clothes, is the surprise I’ve been waiting for. It—he–is the reminder that all is never lost, that waiting must be for a time, and that the end of it is less of an event and more of a journey, a journey in which we may be isolated but are never alone. May that sustain us all as we wait.