by David Romanik
At my previous parish, the most prominent decoration during the seasons of Advent and Christmas was a large Advent wreath suspended over the altar. Getting it into place was always a challenging enterprise, one that involved multiple ladders, dozens of yards of steel cable, and usually more than a few words not entirely appropriate for a church context. Nevertheless, once it was in place, the effect was quite striking, especially for those sitting in the pews. From the congregation, the wreath appeared to float magically above the celebrant, leading our Parish Administrator to refer to the decoration as the “Harry Potter wreath”. For those who had to stand at the altar, however, the experience was always a little nerve wracking. While I was intellectually confident that the wreath was securely in its place, I was also deeply aware that there was a heavy object suspended above my head, rather like the sword of Damocles (the “wreath of Damocles”?), every time I led a celebration of the Eucharist during Advent and Christmas. While I don’t wish to overstate my dread, I will say that I was always a little apprehensive about standing at the altar during the season of Advent.
It occurs to me that this simmering dread is not terribly uncommon during the season of Advent. While most of us are probably not worried about giant Advent wreaths falling on our heads, there are plenty of things that we worry about during this season of anticipation. If you are anything like me, it is very easy to wake up every day during Advent and fret about what is coming. Of course, there is the perennial and prosaic concern about getting one’s Christmas shopping done, but there are other anxieties as well. I suspect that many of us wonder if we will sufficiently enjoy the time with our families, especially when we were unable to celebrate with them last year. Those of us who live alone might worry about enduring a season that tends to be so focused on “family togetherness”. We might even anxiously wonder whether we are adequately acknowledging the spiritual dimensions of the season.
Ultimately, all of these anxieties stem from the fact the future is uncertain. It is interesting to me that we worry about the future regardless of whether we are fearful or excited about it. Even when we are excited about the future, I think there is part of us that worries we might be disappointed: what if our expectations are unmet? This begs the question: how do we look forward to an uncertain future without being plagued by anxiety?
I think the answer lies in a passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we will hear on the third Sunday of Advent. Paul counsels the church at Philippi not to worry about anything because “the Lord is near”. At the heart of this advice is a powerful assumption: God’s presence in the person of Jesus Christ has the power to redeem whatever uncertainties we face. This is not because God will make guarantees about the future, but because in the Incarnation, God has revealed that being human is an indescribable gift.
The promise of Advent is that we can anticipate the future, not with fear or excitement about what will happen, but with the serene knowledge that we will share in what God has experienced through Jesus Christ.