Advent on the way to the Cross

Reflecting on Advent, while reading Mark 8.

The problem with Advent is it ends at Christmas.

Now I know, that’s the point.

We enter into a time of waiting and longing.
We enter into a period of looking and listening.
We go more deeply into the darkness,
in sure anticipation of the coming of the light.

But it still ends in Christmas.
And, frankly, Christmas sucks.

Okay, okay, that’s a tad provocative.
And maybe that is just the old Grinch coming out in me.

But I’m certainly not the first to note the sharp contrast
between the Christmas of the gospel stories
and the pagan (sorry, I had to say it) festivity
that is today known as Christmas.

I don’t need to belabour the point.

But its interesting that the way Mark tells the story,
there is no Christmas.

No Virgin Mary, no shepherds and heavenly host,
no baby Jesus, no crying he makes.

Mark has a different way of telling the story.

Mark weaves a fast moving,
provocative, sparse narrative that is always
in the midst of conflict and controversy,
and on the way to an ever more violent
and definitive confrontation.

And this week, the second week of Advent,
we get to the decisive turning point in the narrative.

It may be Advent, but as far as Mark is concerned,
we have just entered into Lent.

This week Jesus asks his disciples,
“what is the word on the street about who I am?”
“Who do people say that I am?”

And they reply with a list of no-bullshit
prophets from the recent and distant past.

“You are in the bad-ass tradition of the prophets,”
they reply.

“Yea, and what about you?
What’s your word on the matter?
Who do you say that I am?”

And you know the answer.
Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ,
the Messiah of God,
the one they had been longing and waiting for,
the one who would be the light in the darkness.

And Jesus then tells them what all of this means.

The only way to shed light on this darkness
is to go even more deeply into the darkness.

This story is now on its way to Jerusalem and the cross.
And if you’re still on board, then that’s where this
gospel train is going,
so pick up your cross and follow.

Don’t get me wrong, friends,
I’m going to love the Christmas pageant
at church on Christmas eve,
but I’m not going to warm
to the sentimentality of it all.

The times are too desperate
for “Away in the Manger.”

The situation is too dangerous
for “Silent Night.”

Now I know, it might seem to be the wrong time
to start focussing on the cross,
when we’ve got a baby and little kids dressed up as angels
to look forward to.

Peter didn’t think that Jesus’ take on the matter
was too appealing either.
And you know what Jesus said to him.

So lets be clear about the violence of it all.

When baby Jesus was taken away to
escape Herod’s death squads,
a lot of other babies died.

And when baby Jesus grew into his vocation,
when baby Jesus became known as the Messiah,
well, they beat the shit out of him
and hung him up on a Roman cross.

That is where Advent longing ends up.

That is where the light must shine in the darkness,
if it is to shine at all.

I don’t know about you,
but I wonder if we might embrace the longing of Advent
even more deeply,
if we experience Advent and Christmas
in the shadow of the cross.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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