Advent is a season in the Christian year, a time when people prepare for a deeper celebration of Christmas. Occupy Wall Street is a protest movement, an occasion for people to camp out in public parks in order to draw attention to economic injustice. People celebrate Advent by lighting candles, singing special hymns, and praying. People in OWS hold up placards, give unamplified speeches, and, increasingly, get arrested.
So what, you might wonder, do Advent and Occupy Wall Street have in common? They share a conviction that something is profoundly wrong with our world. They both express a longing for things to get better. They are hoping for something to upend the status quo and establish pervasive justice.
A yearning for change, a hunger for justice, a hope for a new world ... these lie at the heart of Advent. For Christians, the weeks before Christmas aren't simply a time to get ready for Christmas by energetic shopping and even more energetic partying. Rather, these weeks constitute a season in the Christian year that focuses on the advent of Christ (from the Latin adventus, which means "coming" or "visit"). More completely, Advent brings to mind the two advents of Christ, his first coming as a baby laid in a manger and his second coming to bring the kingdom of God with its comprehensive peace and justice.
In the season of Advent, Christians remember the yearning of the Jewish people for a savior to deliver them from Roman oppression. As chronicled by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, first century Jews had their own "occupy" movements, which only served to worsen their oppression. For example, around the time of Jesus' birth, a Jewish rebel named Judas gathered some of his fellows and "occupied" the palace in Sepphoris, a city not far from Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. Judas and company took the weapons and the money they found in the palace. The Romans responded, not by arresting the "occupiers," but by making all of the inhabitants of Sepphoris into slaves and burning the whole city to the ground. When they caught the rebels, they crucified them, hundreds at a time.
With stories like this in mind, it's not hard to imagine how Jews in the time of Jesus would have longed for God to save them and establish justice on earth. That's part of what Christians do in the season of Advent. We imagine the yearning of first-century Jews for God to come and make the world right. But we also take seriously the brokenness of our world today, the need for healing and justice throughout our land and across the globe. Advent is a time for us to yearn for the kingdom of God, when the hungry will be fed, the captives will be released, and the weapons of war will be turned into tools for farming.
In my e-book, Discovering Advent: How to Experience the Power of Waiting on God at Christmastime, I explain the meaning of Advent and describe many of the devotional practices common to the season, such as the lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath. I also note that Advent is an occasion for people to engage in acts of generosity and justice:
It's easy for those of us who live in safety, comfort, and prosperity to neglect a godly hope for the coming of the kingdom and all of its benefits. Yet, this hope can be inflamed within us when we reach out to share life with and care for people in need, for the hungry and homeless, for victims of injustice and oppression, for those who suffer from sickness or sadness. Advent can be a time to touch those in need, not only so that we might share God's love with them, but also so that our yearning for the kingdom might be renewed within us.
A example of this kind of seasonal spirituality can be seen in the Advent Conspiracy movement, which urges us to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
In Advent, we pray with particular fervor, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." We long for the fullness of God's kingdom when Christ comes again. This desire energizes us not only to hope for the kingdom, but also to act as citizens of the kingdom today. Thus, our Advent devotion empowers us to live in the world as agents of God's love and justice, even as it helps us get ready to celebrate God's entry into our world through the birth of Christ.
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