Some years ago, a dear friend and I began what we would term our "Advent Tradition." We would do something to celebrate Christmas before we both left Washington, D.C. for the holiday. (I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me…) That year, we went to see Messiah at the Kennedy Center. It was our first time seeing Handel's oratorio, heard over and over in concert halls across the world in the days leading up to Christmas. After the singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus," my friend leaned over to me and said, "I thought that was supposed to be a Christmas song, but we had to wait until Easter for them to break it out."
Advent has always occupied a special place in my imagination. Initially, I'm sure, it was because of those quintessential Advent practices. We had an evergreen wreath with four candles, a new one lit each week (when do we light the pink one??). We sang songs at church that we didn't hear at any other time of the year. The rest of the world was tiring of "All I Want for Christmas is You" by mid-December and, in church at least, we hadn't heard one strain of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." Resisting the temptation to peek behind the doors of our Advent calendar taught me something about patience and delayed gratification.
What I came to realize, though, is that Advent, with all of these little traditions, encapsulates the tension of living the Christian life. We live in the here and now, knowing that Christ in his first coming has sanctified all of our existence, but longing for the day when he will return to us. Longing for the day when the confusion and struggles of this life will be no more, when mountains will be lowered and valleys filled, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when peace will reign.
Living in Advent is living in tension - aware of what is our past and what we long our future to be. Every day we live in the Advent tension of life and death, of suffering and wholeness, of love and loss, of peace and violence, of acceptance and rejection, of excess and poverty, of oneness and loneliness, of questions and surety, of hope and doubt. The question is, do we welcome Christ into this tension?
As my friend and I walked out of the Kennedy Center that night, I realized that, despite an attempt at celebrating Christmas, we glimpsed an Advent moment. We were reminded, one more time, that without the Passion, we could not shout "Hallelujah!" The tension of Advent surrounds us, but how well do we allow Christ to enter into that uncertainty and woundedness? If we do welcome Christ into our tension, we also welcome the new life that Christ brings with his Resurrection. That's an Advent worth celebrating.
David Pennington is the Associate Campus Minister for Liturgy and Worship at The Catholic University of America.