Not all that many years ago, Advent was marked with purple vestments, banners, and hangings. Purple was the color of royalty, to be sure, reminding us of the royalty of Christ but it was also the color for the season of Lent. Like Lent, Advent was a season of penitence and with that came fasting.
Fasting was and still is considered a discipline wherein a person refrains from eating or drinking for a specified period of time as a spiritual exercise to signify repentance and turning the thoughts to God rather than the dinner table. Some groups were rigorous in their fasting, taking no meat at all during Advent just as they practiced in Lent, others merely gave up something important for the season. During the late 20th century some churches began to revise the penitential aspect of Advent in favor of one of expectation and hope rather than sin and punishment.
The readings during Advent feature foretelling, prophecies from the Hebrew Bible that seem to point toward Jesus as the Messiah. Isaiah is prominent in the readings because there is a lot of material in Isaiah that lends itself to the expectation that comes with the Advent season. But foretelling wasn’t just about the coming of the Messiah, an event for whom the Jews still wait. Foretelling was also about seeing what was going on in the world, or their part of it, anyway, and the repercussions of those things. Prophets spoke as God directed, warning the people that their wickedness and disobedience would cause dire consequences. Sometimes the people listened, sometimes they didn’t, but the prophets were usually persistent in repeating the message again and again, to king and commoner alike. They went to foreign people with warnings, they went into exile with those deported into captivity, they returned to rebuild and renew. The foretelling readings of Advent center on a hero who was coming to change the world for the better and to lead the people into righteousness. Like the Jews, some still wait.
Isaiah wasn’t really talking about Jesus but the people were familiar with his prophecies and so could see in Jesus the fulfillment of the prophecies spoken hundreds of years before. One of the themes of the whole Bible is fulfillment of one sort or another like the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand in the desert. God fulfilled the promise never again to totally destroy the world by water, but we still have catastrophic floods that can devastate large expanses of the countryside but the rest of the world continues on almost unaffected by them. Jonah, once he decided to go where God told him, preached to the Ninevites, those who lived in the Assyrian town of Nineveh, and warned them of the consequences of the path they were on. Much to Jonah’s disgust, the Ninevites repented and turned to God as he sat on a hill, gleefully waiting to see lightning bolts and other signs of divine wrath come down on them. Another prophecy fulfilled, just not the way Jonah wanted it. We as Christians look to Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy and also to the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. We could be working on the fulfillment of that latter promise, but we seem to have too much to do most of the time. The fulfillment awaits, though.
Friends and family play a part in Advent observance. We can go most of the year without exchanging calls or letters or contact of any kind but during Advent and the run-up to Christmas, we deliberately reconnect with those we haven’t heard from since last year, get caught up on family news, get together for coffee or a party or some sort of get-together, all in the name of “Christmas spirit.” Even if it isn’t Christmas yet, it’s close enough for most folks. Many who live more than a couple of hours away will find themselves back home with the family they’d left behind just in time for the fourth Sunday of Advent and certainly in time for Christmas Eve. Whenever someone is missing from the family dinner table or around the family tree, the celebration is never complete. Advent gives us time to do our reconnecting and close the circle which otherwise would have a gap in it.
Advent can be a time of bridging time and troubles, healing ruptures and repairing relationships. It can be a time of vast feasting or restrained fasting. Most of all, it can be a time of looking to see what has been shown us by the past and then take the opportunity to work toward the fulfillment of that which needs correction. It isn’t all about parties or presents, it’s about presence and community. Enjoy it wisely.