When I was a little girl growing up, the time leading up to Christmas was my favorite time of year. Like most kids, I was excited at the prospect of getting a long break from school, and most of all, I was excited to get presents! My family always had a very strict protocol about the proper time for opening presents. We waited until Christmas morning. My brother and sister and I would wake our parents up at an ungodly early hour and be told to go back to bed a few times before they finally got up. My dad would then shuffle downstairs to get his camera while the three of us waited with Mom at the top of the stairs, until Dad was ready for us to come down. I have no idea what all Dad was actually doing downstairs – but I do remember that it always took foreeeeeeever for him to give us the go-ahead to come down. Maybe it just seemed like an interminably long time because I was so small and impatient (as opposed to large and impatient, like I am now). But I vividly remember sitting at the top of that long, narrow staircase in my pajamas, waiting with my brother and sister, our little butts scooched right to the very edge of the top stair. I remember the electric feeling of excitement in my whole body, like a coiled up spring, just waiting to bounce down those stairs as fast as my little legs could go.
This waiting, this excitement and expectation, is what the season of Advent is all about. We are waiting with bated breath – not knowing yet what exactly we will find at the bottom of the stairs, but trusting that it will be marvellous and worth the wait.
I’m sure you can think of times in your own lives when you have waited for something with excitement, when you have looked forward to something for days or weeks or months. Perhaps it was Christmas presents for you too. Perhaps it was a long-awaited vacation, or a special trip, or when you got ready to retire. Perhaps it was a wedding! Maybe it was a visit from a loved one or the birth of a child. I want you to think about a time when you could hardly wait for something.
What did that waiting feel like? How did it feel in your body?
I want you to hang onto these feelings and remember them. This is what Advent is meant to feel like. It’s a season of expectation and excitement and hope. That’s actually why we have the blue vestments and paraments this time of year. We’re not quite to the festive white color of Christmas just yet – but we’re also not in a solemn, penitential season like Lent, when we use purple. Blue is the color of hope – and hope is the heart of Advent.
In the same vein, Advent is also a season of preparation. This is the major theme throughout all of our texts for today. Our gospel canticle from Luke echoes Malachi and Isaiah, ancient prophets who waited expectantly for the fulfillment of God’s promises and urged their people to prepare themselves for the coming of God’s messenger. Paul writes to the Philippians in our second reading about being prepared for the coming day of Christ. And of course, John heralds the coming of Jesus in our gospel reading, crying out to all the region around the Jordan – and to all of us gathered here today – prepare the way of the Lord!
It does feel a little bit like beating a dead horse to talk about this being a season of preparation – as though you hadn’t already noticed! – as though you weren’t already swamped with your own preparations: buying gifts, putting up Christmas decorations, baking holiday goodies, making plans for family gatherings, and all the other extra things expected of us around this time of year. I mean, look at all the incredible work that went into the Holiday Fair last Sunday – you all have been in preparation mode for months now.
This is a very busy time of year, and our preparations often end up being at least as stressful as they are joyful. What has that felt like for you this year? How and where do you feel that stress in your body?
That stress can make it kind of hard to hear this message. It might seem like it’s just one more thing to pile on top of everything else to come to church and be told, “prepare the way of the Lord!” Like you needed one more thing to do! But, as you might guess, this is a different kind of preparation – one that may not feel like preparation in the sense we normally think about it.
We can take some inspiration from our gospel canticle for this morning. This is the canticle of Zechariah, who was the father of John the Baptist. You probably remember the story – Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were already old when an angel appeared to him and said they were going to have a son. Zechariah was understandably skeptical about this. The part of the story you may not remember is that in response to Zechariah’s disbelief, God makes him mute until the time when John is born and named. Just imagine being silent for most of a year, unable to speak, especially with something so important going on! When God finally gives Zechariah back his voice, this canticle is the first thing to come out of his mouth. We can hear in his song just how much nine months of silence have changed Zechariah. It has prepared his heart for the path he must walk. The loss of his voice opened him up to hear the voice of God speaking to him, and enabled him to fully receive the gift that God had given.
Zechariah’s silence was a kind of self-emptying that made space for God to come to him. This is an image of Advent preparation that I personally find really compelling: emptying ourselves of the busy-ness of our frantic, hurried lives, of the limitations that we put on the world and on ourselves, and opening ourselves to the fullness of God. God knows I have been full to the gills these last months of my own stuff, preoccupied with the tasks of ministry and feeling stressed about getting everything done and doing it well and trying to manage my time effectively, feeling like I’m constantly running to keep up. Advent is an invitation for us to take all these things – all the stress and busy-ness and conflict and worry – to gather them up here in a little ball and set them aside, if only for a moment. And with our hands and hearts open, we are able to receive the gift of God’s presence, able to experience the hope of what God has in store.
In this sense, Advent is also kind of a season of repentance. We are turning ourselves back to God, opening ourselves to God – but we do so with a spirit of hopeful expectation, with feelings of excitement and wonder like those we talked about earlier. God is up to something – something marvellous and mysterious. When we pause to be still and listen for a moment, to let go of our busy-ness and preoccupation, God shows us the way, offering us a glimpse of the wonders to come, inviting us joyfully to prepare our hearts to receive them.
God is coming to bring salvation and forgiveness and peace – to bring light to all those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death – and we have a part to play in it.
So listen for the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness; prepare the way of the Lord!