Advent and Exile

Confession: I wasn’t always a fan of Christmas music and the Christmas season in general. As I’ve written about before in a blog co-written with Charlie, it took me years to understand the power of rhythms in my life — daily rhythms, weekly rhythms, monthly rhythms, and annual rhythms. Christmas honestly seemed overblown — we give a week to Easter, so why would we give a month to Christmas?

But life as Director of Worship pulled me back into Christmas songs and lyrics and readings year after year, and I quickly found myself changed by it! I think 2020 is absolutely the year to remind us again that the annual longing of Advent combined with the joy of Jesus’ birth is precisely what we need as the days get shorter, the weather gets colder, and we find ourselves surrounded by what might generously be called a lack of goodwill towards men in our broader culture.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Every single week from the pulpits at Faith and around the world, you’ll hear churches proclaim the complete and sufficient work of Jesus to provide salvation to any who call upon his name. This is important: Jesus is the Eternal King, and those he saves, the Holy Spirit preserves until we enter eternity. It’s a truth to build our lives upon, and so we come back to it every single week. We’ll say things like “live each day in light of the resurrection” and “preach the Gospel to yourself everyday.” In a metaphysical sense, because the outcome, the end, is assured, it is done; you can take it to the bank. As flesh-and-blood bodies traveling through time, however, we recognize that in our hearts and in the world around us, the work is anything but done.

Each day spent following Jesus produces a greater awareness of our personal need for him and our world’s need for him. An exile-theology is so helpful here. The classic Christmas hymn above (my favorite Christmas hymn) says that we “mourn in lonely exile here/until the Son of God appear(s).” The writer isn’t just talking about Israel in the past but the Church living now: we have the promise of a coming Messiah. We have tasted his grace and saving work, and yet we are exiles far from home. We are citizens of a Kingdom that exists everywhere, and yet we are subject to competing kingdoms. So we mourn. We mourn that we haven’t seen Jesus face-to-face yet. We mourn the wandering of our own hearts. We mourn all those who choose other comforts and hopes besides Jesus because we know those will ultimately fail.

This mourning, this heaviness that comes from seeing clearly, is good for us. Fleming Rutledge says that “Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.” It is an invitation to let the rest of our field of view dim a bit in the cold winter light so that we emerge fully reminded that Jesus alone shines bright and true as the hope for a broken world and our broken hearts. Glenn Packiam says, “Advent tells us that the deep longing, the ache we have for the world to be set right, for pain to be fully healed, for death to be defeated must be given voice. More than that: it must be given an Object. Advent reminds us that the hope of the whole aching, broken world is Jesus Christ.” Leaning into the longing only reinforces for us that Jesus alone is enough to meet that longing, and it strengthens us for the journey home. 

Elite athletes training for competition offer us a great picture of a universal part of the human experience: it is impossible to be at peak performance perpetually. It simply can’t be done or else the human body breaks down too much. Instead, athletes follow a precise calendar filled with rest, refueling, mixed intensities and mixed methods designed to help them be as strong, explosive, focused, and ready as possible when the time is right. But to get there, they have to pull back regularly. The same is true for us: we cannot live at maximum productivity, or maximum anything, really, each and every day for our whole lives. Within each day, week, month, and year, we need times to pull back to regroup, to heal, and refuel. These moments are as much a part of us, if not more, as our ‘peak performance’ moments. I like to think of Advent as one of the times when we should deliberately slow our strivings to reorient and refuel ourselves on the journey. Trusting in Jesus, we know the joy set before us, but sometimes we are served more by catching our breath and looking into the distance before putting our heads down and resuming the path. Together, let’s embrace Advent this year as a chance to take a deep breath in the strangest year we’ve ever seen and be re-energized as we journey home. 

Dan Pahlau has been on staff at Faith for nine years. He serves as our Worship Ministries Director, coordinating and leading all that goes into our Sunday worship. He loves building teams and developing relationships with people.

Dan is a Fort Collins native who enjoys roasting and brewing coffee, staying active and quoting “The Office.”