Rachel Ringenberg Miller reflects on the Advent season as separate from Christmas, identifying it as a time for actively waiting, together.
Rachel Ringenberg Miller serves as denominational minister for ministerial leadership for Mennonite Church USA. She focuses on engaging conferences and congregations, providing resources and services to meet the diverse demands facing congregations today. She graduated from Goshen (Indiana) College and Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with an MDiv. She served as associate pastor for Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church and as pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas. Rachel attends Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, a Central District Conference congregation.
I’d wager one of the top questions pastors are asked during Advent is this: “When can we start singing Christmas songs in worship?” As a pastor, I was continuously balancing how to handle the requests — ahem, demands — to sing Christmas songs and celebrating the season of Advent. There are four Sundays of Advent, two Sundays of Christmas, with the holiday season concluding with Epiphany. I eventually told the worship planners that, after the second Sunday of Advent, Christmas songs could be included in the order of worship. This didn’t placate or cease the demand for Christmas songs, but people went along with it.
Advent is not Christmas. Advent is intended to be a time of active waiting. We wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The arrival of God with us, Immanuel. And while we wait, we spend time reflecting on our journey of faith and work on allowing ourselves to be open to what Jesus’ arrival means for us and the world. “To wait,” as Andrew Root wrote in his book, “Churches and the Crisis of Decline,” “is to open ourselves to something outside of ourselves.”
We are waiting to see what Jesus is doing in the world, and then, we join in. To wait is to follow Jesus. Waiting in Advent is active, not passive.
To wait is countercultural. We live in a world in which most everything is on demand, and if it isn’t, it should be! If my order isn’t ready for pick-up right at the scheduled time, I’m incensed! I have places to be and things to do. How dare they make me wait? (Am I right?!) In U.S. culture, waiting has a negative connotation. Waiting is to allow precious hours of the day to slip by with nothing to show for it. There is a high emphasis put on production. Or to use a quip that makes me queasy, “We are human doings not human beings.” It makes me queasy, because it perpetuates the myth that we must always be moving and doing. In U.S. culture busyness is the ultimate sign of success.
Our cultural understanding of waiting highlights the individual and the false narrative that we can and should do everything on our own and immediately. But at the heart of the Christian faith is relationships: relationship with God and relationship with one another. We follow Jesus together.
Advent invites us to wait, to sit in silence, to pray, to wonder how God’s arrival in the form of a baby impacts not only us but also the world. From Andrew Root again, “with waiting, energy is understood not to arise from within ourselves but from a hope that is outside of us.” Jesus is that hope — hope that what is, isn’t what has to be. This hope is why we celebrate Advent. Our world, our church, our communities, our families, ourselves are all in need of hope. The good news is that we don’t create hope. This hope comes from outside of us. The hope of Advent resides in a baby — a baby growing inside their mother’s womb, a baby who will be first carried by their mother, before carrying the world. This baby, Jesus, continues to carry us. All that is required of us is to be attentive and wait to see how we’ve been invited into God’s story.
Waiting is not an individual sport. Waiting is something we do together.
I wonder what would happen if church communities leaned into the waiting that is Advent. For example, what would happen if we spent just as much time reading Scripture and praying as we did in planning the Christmas pageant? Or what if the congregation spent time reflecting on the times they felt God’s presence and the times when they did not over the course of the last year?
I believe it is in those moments of reading the story, praying and reflecting that we begin to see that hope abounds. God, indeed, was with us, is with us;, will be with us. When we wait, we give space for hope to enter our souls and grant us peace when there is no peace. It is this kind of hope that, then, allows us to sing full bodied, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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