You’d be forgiven for thinking I was speaking of January, named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces to look forwards and backwards in the year. Rather, Advent—the first season of the Christian year—has two faces.
One face is a face of joy, the face we associate with our Christmas traditions, with chocolate and feasting. From this mouth Advent bids to us “rejoice!” with every Carol we hear, God himself is coming into the world, the rescue mission has started. After a long wait in the deep cold of Winter we hear in the Angel’s song: the first breath of Spring on the wind.
The other face is apocalyptic, of Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees (Matthew 25), of an age that pushes against this world’s rulers, who are doomed to pass away (1 Corinthians 2). It’s the face, not of angelic choirs singing over a chubby-cheeked baby, but of the wild eyes of John the Baptist. It’s the face of a desert prophet.
We think we enter the first, though I think we often paper over it with sentimentality rather than feel the joy of the coming of Christ. We rarely enter the second—that’s what we could with recovering from the liturgical calendar. Advent is the season of waiting and hastening (2 Peter 3), a season of desert prophets dressed in skins and slathered in honey they found in a rock.
In the coming of Christ, two ages clash into each other, and we rejoice. The old order is fading and passing away—if you’ve been following my cultural criticism, I honestly think you can see it flaking at the seams, for all my eschatology leads me to suspect Jesus may tarry for a while longer—and a new age of the kingdom of God has irrupted into our mundane realities. God entered the world and our worlds, and the mountains melted (Psalm 97).
Our call to rejoice at Advent, and at Christmas for that matter, is not simply a matter of rejoicing that God has made himself weak to come and rescue those who cling to their own failing strength—though we must do that with full-throated voices. It is also a matter of rejoicing that our age is fading, that injustice of all stripes (including that which we perpetuate ourselves and pretend we don’t) will be ended by a judgement by the Judge of the earth, and that we must flee the wrath to come (Matthew 3) by repenting.
We see this in the Old Testament prophets, though we often selectively read from them in our Carol services. Their messages of hope always includes passages of judgement. The two belong together. While less obviously ‘Christmasy’ I can think of no clearer sign than the Biblical symbol of wine. Wine in the Bible stands for joy—for gladness—and it stands for judgement. It often stands for both at the same time. Those ideas seem opposed to us, but they are not, they’re the same thing.
In Isaiah 64 the ideas of condemnation and mercy overlap, as Fleming Rutledge puts it,
Isaiah laments God’s absence in the midst of proclaiming his presence.Advent, 309
It’s both. It’s always both. Judgement and mercy come together. The same voice announces war and peace, and does so at the same time. We might find this ambiguous, but when we remember that this mercy is accomplished through judgement—of evil, and of the son of God in the place of sinners—we see that they are the same story. Judgement is good news, but it’s also terrifying news.
In our justice-obsessed age we are finding it easier than recent generations to understand that judgement can be good news because it brings the end of injustice. We aren’t quite there, we still have our tolerance-taught reaction against the concept of judgement, but we do want injustice to end however and wherever we perceive it. Of course, part of our problem is that we don’t agree on what justice is, but we can at least agree that justice is a good thing and that bad people should be judged. When described in this way most people could describe God’s judgement as good news—and it is! It is good news that all evil will be ended, that every victim will be able to see justice done clearly to those who hurt them.
Conspicuous evil is not hard to find, and we hardly need to reach into the history books to find it. I write this at the start of the Autumn, my country’s troops have recently left Afghanistan along with our American allies. It’s possible that by December we’ve forgotten all about it, but whyever it happened and however it could or could not have been stopped or amended, we must all see that our governments inflicted deep evil on that country in the way they left. The story of the British embassy having left the names of interpreters who worked with them for the Taliban to find as they took the embassy is one among many examples of small, shameful evils done by ordinary people among a great nation-shaking disaster of our own making. This must be judged by one much more impartial and just than I, and it will be.
Of course, we only like judgement in so far as God agrees with us about what justice looks like, and who needs to be judged. The apocalyptic ending of the age is good news when generalised and applied to others. It’s bad news when applied to me.
And it is applied to me, and to you, friends. We will find that to do justice will expose the root of Hell that grows from our own hearts even if we are not perpetrators of great evils. There is plenty of evil laying within me to be judged too. When I realise that judgement—that the ending of the age—will find me wanting too, it is good news that turns sour. Good news that terrifies.
Until God stoops to stand in my place.
That is the joy of the gospel, and the joy of the season. I do think we rush to cover over the agony of realising that we need to repent in order to receive the wondrous unending bounty of God’s gift to me in Christ. It’s true that we shouldn’t leave anyone hanging without assurance that those who trust in Christ and follow him will be judged as though they were the divine Son on the last day. And, following him requires a life of repentance.
This is the two faces of Advent on an individual scale. Let’s commit to our inventory of the darkness, and then repent. We will find that the Father’s arms are always open to embrace his children.
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