Advent, when we allow it, transports us back in time to a relatively small and unheralded province of the Roman Empire where a people waited. This people had enjoyed millennia of imperfect but close communion with their God; He had walked with them, spoken to them, and promised for them a coming king and kingdom that would vanquish even death.
But for four hundred years this God had fallen largely silent, leaving His people to wait, clinging to fading memories as the years rolled by and foreign armies swept over their lands. So they told stories and sang songs reminding them of who they were and whose they were, reminding them that their present darkness was a passing vision, eventually bound to give way to an eternal dawn. So they waited in anticipation, struggling (sometimes violently) against their worldly reality and towards God’s promised reality.
This roiling anticipation is a universal human experience. Call it longing, restlessness, or “wanderlust,” people throughout history and across the world have found in themselves the unbidden understanding that their present circumstances are not enough for them. Mountains of novels, songs, and films have grown out of this bone-deep sense that we “still haven’t found what we’re looking for.” Think of some of these sorts of works and how they have shaped your own life: perhaps the lyrics of U2, Bruce, or Kendrick Lamar, the stories of Kerouac or Toni Morrison, or perhaps simply the image of Luke Skywalker slowly turning his gaze up towards a binary sunset as a John Williams melody swells behind him.
These are all earnest responses to the bone-deep sense that we are still awaiting an invitation to a Home as-of-yet unknown. Like the ancient Israelites before them, these artists show us that anticipation– living between what is and what ought to be– can be active, creative, productive. However, living every moment pulled taut between the now and the not-yet is no easy thing.
When I was home in Houston over Thanksgiving, the pastor of our local church shared an old Hasidic parable that I think captures some of this reality.
The story centers around Reb Avrom, a very holy rabbi who never ate and who never slept. Reb Baruch wanted to meet and learn from Reb Avrom, so he traveled a great distance and eventually found the holy rabbi.
When they had a chance to talk alone, Reb Baruch asked Reb Avrom, “Is it true that you never eat and never sleep?”
“It is true,” Reb Avrom responded.
And Reb Baruch said, “Can I ask why this is?”
Rev Avrom paused a moment and responded, “Let me tell you a story: When I was a young child, my father, who was himself one of the holiest rabbis, a man with a distinct air of countenance, a glow about him, to the point that everyone he met knew that he was filled with the presence of God the Father.
One day, my father told me, “Son, we are going on a journey.” So he put me in the wagon and we set off deep into the woods, off the regular path. Eventually, we arrived at a small hut. And out of this hut emerged a young man, and even though my father’s countenance was bright, this young man’s countenance was unlike anything I had ever seen. His eyes glowed almost like stars.
My father walked to him, and I saw them embrace and begin to talk. Their heads were bowed low. And as they moved back towards the wagon, I could hear the young man ask, ‘Are you sure?’
And my father said to him, ‘I am sure. Don’t come. Don’t come. No one is waiting for you. No one is ready for you. No one is really anticipating you.’
And with that they both wept and embraced each other. My father climbed back in the wagon, and we began to drive away. A little ways down the path, I asked my father, “Papa, who was that man?”
He answered, “He is Yeshua Ben David. He is the Messiah.”
Then Reb Avrom turned his eyes upon Reb Baruch and said, “How can I eat? How can I sleep, knowing the Messiah wants to return, but no one is waiting for him, no one is ready for him, no one is really anticipating him?”
I know for myself that it is far easier to let the cacophony of work, family life, holiday parties, Netflix, shopping sprees, bowl games, and travel drown out the pedal-tone of longing that is meant to ground our lives. Exposed to enough noisy busyness, we can grow deaf to the new song that is even now breaking into the world. The season of Advent is an invitation to once again inhabit a posture of active anticipation so that Christ can come into our lives as he has already come into the world and sing through us as members of his Kingdom chorus.
So then, how might our lives and our living– our schedules, choices, and attitudes– shift and change so that they testify to the fact that we are ready, waiting, and anticipating the triumphant return of Jesus our Messiah?