At a recent class for ordination, one of our instructors described the symbolism behind what is found on many church altars and the description was news to me. Look at the front of many sanctuaries and you will see placed atop a table two candles and in between either a Bible or a plate and cup, or all of these items. The Bible represents the ministry of the word and the plate and cup represent the sacrament of Eucharist. These items are not there because churches years ago agreed to a standard decor. Instead, they are physical reminders of the Christian life and have deep significance for the season of Advent. The first candle symbolizes the Incarnation of Jesus and the second candle symbolizes his eventual return. In between his first coming and second coming, the ministry of the Church—word and sacrament—take place. (Aren’t those great symbols? I wonder why they were never explained to me before or how their meanings were forgotten.)
In an earlier post about Advent, I wrote that the season has become one of my favorites for its mixture of celebration and longing. Put another way, Advent is a season of thanksgiving and hope. We are thankful for Jesus’ coming to the world and hope with expectation and longing for his return. While I find my faith re-energized during this season with its rich songs, prayers, and symbols, it is also a season where my greatest doubts about the Christian faith emerge. I have little trouble with the celebration and thanksgiving aspects of Advent and Christmas. That Jesus arrived, changed the whole world, and called people to follow him is not difficult for me to accept—to live accordingly, however, is another matter and another post altogether. My wife and I display creches from different cultures, which remind us of the largeness and universal implications of the Incarnation. We also remember to read the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke with its historical particulars to remind ourselves that Jesus was born in a specific time and place, a member of the Jewish people, coming to fulfill the specific promises God made to the children of Abraham and to call Gentiles to worship the one true God. I love re-entering this story every year. I love learning about the particulars of it, wondering what these flesh and blood people like Mary and Joseph must have been thinking as they awaited the birth of Messiah. Using the image of the altar again, I’ve got no problems believing the reality of the first candle and the current ministry of the Church.
I do have problems at times believing the reality of the second candle on the altar, the candle symbolizing Jesus’ promised return. The difficult part of Advent for me is the hope, the longing, the waiting for Jesus to come again and set everything right. Hope is always a challenge because we do not presently see that for which we hope. As Paul says in Romans 8.24, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” We hope for Christ’s second coming, we are waiting the second Advent. We long for Messiah to return, to bring the world to right, to end oppression and enmity, and to restore beauty and love. We are stuck in the in-between and that is a hard place to be. Being between the promise given and the promise fulfilled is a wilderness place. As the years have grown and Christ has not returned, doubts begin to plague me. Why is Jesus taking so long to come back? Has there not been enough pain? Has there not been enough beauty? I think of the drug wars along the US-Mexican border with their terrifying stories of violence and greed and I wonder, Jesus, why don’t you come back now and put an end to that conflict? I think of the fact that millions are dying from HIV-related illnesses, and I pray, Jesus, come back now and save them. Or I consider that nearly a billion people in the world do not have access to clean water and I ache for Jesus to return and give living water to all these thirsty people. Those are just a few current examples of the brokenness in the world that need God’s healing. What of all the violence and evil that have occurred throughout history? Why hasn’t Jesus come back? Is his return merely a Christian belief, as some biblical scholars postulate, that was either made up after Jesus or something about which the biblical authors and perhaps even Jesus himself were wrong? Am I reading the Bible correctly, am I understanding the Church’s story accurately when I believe that Jesus is returning? Am I delusional to believe in Christ’s return or even to believe in Jesus at all? This waiting period is a time in which all sorts of doubts and questions emerge. Thankfully we can look back on the first coming of Jesus, but it is still hard to wait for the second coming.
To be in that liminal space is to have good company, though that does not always comfort me. Think of the big stories in the Bible and how many of them spend their time in between the promises given and the promises fulfilled. Most of Abraham and Sarah’s story takes place in between the promise that they will have a son and when Isaac is finally born. Even then they never really see God’s promise that their family will be a great nation fulfilled. In the Torah, the Israelites spend most of their time after being rescued from Egypt in the wilderness and don’t even get to the Promised Land until the events in Joshua. The prophets ache for the people to return to faithfulness or for God to end the Exile or for Messiah to come.
It seems that to be a person of biblical faith means to be in a state of waiting in between the promise given and the promise fulfilled. In Advent, we remember that God fulfilled that first promise, to send Messiah and save God’s people from their sins. We also stand in the in-between, waiting for the second promise, when Jesus will return and bring the new creation to its fulfillment and defeat sin and death completely. We stand in between two candles, looking back and looking ahead, remembering that we can look ahead with hope because of what has happened in the past. It may be a hope that is hard to see at times.