by Kathryn A. Kleinhans—
Advent is a season of waiting, but not just waiting. Advent is also a season of anticipation and preparation. Anticipation reminds us that we are waiting for something that is worth waiting for. Preparation reminds us that waiting is not idle time; there are things we can do to get ready for what we are waiting for. For children, waiting for Christmas can feel endless. As adults, we shift our focus from the anticipation of gifts to the anticipation of Christ’s coming. (The word “Advent” actually means arrival or coming.)
In our culture, we start to hear Christmas carols and see Christmas displays as early as Halloween. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Advent hymns playing at the local mall. But there is much to gain when we pay attention to the songs of Advent—both those in the Scriptures and those in our hymnals. While we are preparing for the holidays, we can also prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate Christ’s renewed and renewing presence in our lives.
MARY’S SONG (LUKE 1:46-55)
The one thing young Mary wasn’t expecting was to be expecting! When she received the news from the angel that she would become the mother of the Son of God, her mind must have kicked into gear as well as her body. A pregnant woman doesn’t just wait for nine months. There’s much to do to prepare for the birth of a child, even under normal circumstances.
Early in her pregnancy, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth, also miraculously with child. Elizabeth is full of excitement about Mary’s pregnancy, saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (verse 42). Mary responds with the song that we call the Magnificat because Mary says that she “magnifies” or glorifies God. The Magnificat has traditionally been a part of evening prayer services—an important clue that this is not just a pre-Christmas song.
What is striking about Mary’s song is how quickly she moves from the miracle God is working in her own life to a celebration of the world that she trusts God is bringing about. She sings of God’s mercy and God’s strength. She sings of a world characterized by equality rather than hierarchy, a world where some people aren’t seen as superior to other people, a world where the hungry are all fed. Above all, she sings of God’s deep commitment to God’s promises to God’s people.
God promises a world that will be different from the world we know and experience. The transforming power described in Mary’s song is perhaps best expressed in the hymn, “Canticle of the Turning” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 723), with its driving beat and its constant refrain of “the world is about to turn.” Hymnwriter Rory Cooney’s contemporary paraphrase of Mary’s song captures Advent’s themes not only of waiting (stanza 1) but also yearning (stanza 2) for God’s action. For what do we yearn during this Advent season? How are we held fast by God’s promise (stanza 4)?
ZECHARIAH’S SONG (LUKE 1:67-79)
When the angel Gabriel first appeared to Zechariah to give him the news that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, Zechariah questioned the angel because Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. As a consequence for his doubt, Zechariah was made literally speechless until the angel’s words were fulfilled. Zechariah’s song after the birth of his son, John, is all the more powerful because it is the first thing he says after nine long months of silence.
The first part of Zechariah’s song (verses 68-75) is thanksgiving for God’s gift of a Savior. It echoes some of the same themes in Mary’s song: God’s favor, God’s mercy, God’s remembering the promises made to God’s people, and God’s decisive action on the people’s behalf. Perhaps Zechariah was present when Mary burst into song while visiting Elizabeth, so that her words influenced his. Zechariahaddresses the second part of his song (verses 76-79) directly to John, whose call is to prepare the way for the coming Savior.
We can take to heart Zechariah’s words to his newborn son as words for us also. When Zechariah sings, “You, my child…will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (verse 76), hear yourself as the one being addressed. Advent is a season of the church year that anticipates not only the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem but also his return at the end of time, when Christ will bring all things to fulfillment in God’s kingdom. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for his cousin, Jesus, we are called to prepare the way for the return of our Savior. How might we do that? We prepare the way, Zechariah suggests, when we speak the Good News of forgiveness, when we “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” and when our feet walk in “the way of peace” (verse 79).
THE CHURCH’S SONG
Through the centuries, the church has supplemented the songs of Mary and Zechariah with Advent songs of its own.
“Christ, Be Our Light” (ELW 715) expresses the literal longing for light in the dark days of winter and also the visceral longing for healing in our broken world:
Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
light for the world to see.
Longing for peace, our world is troubled.
Longing for hope, many despair.
Your word alone has pow’r to save us.
Make us your living voice.
© 1993, Bernadette Farrell. Published by OCP. 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
John Ylvisaker’s hymn “Drawn to the Light” (ELW 593) offers a note of joyous anticipation beyond our longing:
People who walk in darkness have sought a light in the heart of the darkest night.
Just when we thought all would be lost,
we were drawn to the light of God.
© 1990 John Ylvisaker. Box 321, Waverly, Iowa 50677, 319-352-4396. Used with permission.
The work of Advent is practical as well as spiritual. Like Mary’s preparation for the birth of Jesus, like John the Baptist’s preparation for the ministry of Jesus, our preparation for the coming of Christ summons us to action.
The hymn “Unexpected and Mysterious” (ELW 258) calls us, “to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.”
The Spanish hymn “Toda la Tierra” (“All Earth is Hopeful,” ELW 266) reminds us not only that “furrows lie open for God’s creative task” but that God’s task engages “the labor of people, who struggle to see how God’s truth and justice set ev’rybody free” (stanza 1). The work is difficult, involving mountains, valleys and new highways and protocols (stanza 3). Yet the birth of God’s promise in our world, like the birth of a child, makes the labor worth it.
This year let the songs of Advent be your prayer and your call to action. In the words of “Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn” (ELW 242), “be strong and loving and fearless.”
The Rev. Dr. Kathryn A. Kleinhans holds the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa. She is the editor of Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans
(Augsburg Fortress, 2016).
This article is excerpted from the December 2017 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.