Advent involves not only God’s “coming to” (Latin: ad-venire) us in human form (incarnation) as part of God’s ongoing self-disclosure, but also our “coming to” in response to the gift of this season.
This obvious play on words draws upon memories of images of early TV shows where characters “come to” after losing a fistfight. Or a sleepwalker “comes to” after a period of unconscious behavior.
Or a hypnotized subject “comes to” after a period of altered consciousness. Or a surgical patient “comes to,” wondering when the operation will begin only to discover that it has been completed.
Our biblical story reflects numerous occasions of “coming to” as part of the journey of the covenant faith community.
Jacob “comes to” after an all-night wrestling match at the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) with a new name (Isra-el) and a new meaning for his relationship with God (“He who strives with God”).
Prophets “come to” after an encounter with God and embrace a calling to proclaim the “word of the Lord” to the covenant community at various stages of its journey.
Matthew’s Gospel portrays Joseph “coming to” from a dream that identifies and names a child who will be Savior (Matthew 1:18-25) as well as from another dream a bit later that warns him to escape Herod’s plan to eliminate a threat to Jesus’ standing as “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:13).
Even the Magi come to from a dream with guidance to avoid helping Herod act on his paranoia (Matthew 2:12).
Luke’s prodigal son comes to from his life of squandered resources with enough memory of who his father is to take the risk of returning home (Luke 15:11-32).
Saul of Tarsus comes to from a rather dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus with the beginnings of a transition from a reward-oriented to a gift-oriented understanding of faith (Acts 9).
Transformations at other points of our history illustrate the experience of “coming to” and discovering new ways of thinking and seeing the world.
Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant credited an insight of his contemporary David Hume with “awakening him from his dogmatic slumbers” and helping set the course for his own analysis of reason and causality.
Our own personal experiences can no doubt identify occasions when an “a-ha!” moment makes obvious something that may have been there all along but comes to be seen with new insight as to its significance. After these experiences, we can no longer see it the same way again.
Advent is the season of the Christian year when we focus on the coming of God to us in a new and decisive way.
It is hard to imagine a more significant focus for our reverent energies as we embrace and celebrate this gift. Perhaps it is appropriate, as well, for us to give some careful reflective time to our response to this event.
We celebrate Advent and God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ by capturing its magic and pointing to its mystery with the pageantry of nativity scenes, the beauty of music, the glitter of decorations and the expressions of generosity.
How do we “come to” from this encounter with the holy?
Are we happy with the celebrations, grateful for the gifts and the fellowship with loved ones and other friends that the season provides? We certainly hope so – such experiences are among life’s special blessings.
Do we quietly put away the decorations and resume business as usual, knowing that we will repeat the joyous celebrations again in less than a year?
Or do we also “come to” as transformed persons and communities, with a new and fresh connection with what the experience of Advent has brought?
Do we find ourselves renewed in our commitment to address the challenges that God’s self-disclosure in Christ has provided us?
It seems that we have a choice: “waking from our dogmatic (and other kinds of) slumbers” to a life of new insight and commitment to a level of faith that applies us also to new levels of discipleship, or slipping back into the comfortable and secure sleep that insulates us from the needs and injustices of a troubled world.
If we celebrate what God has done in coming to us, however authentic and spectacular our celebrations, but fail to embrace the life that incarnation invites us to, we have participated in only half of the “coming to” of Advent.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.