We are accustomed to think of Advent as a meditative season. Hushed by a vision of Mary pondering mysteries in her heart as the Child takes form in her womb, the Church grows still. Advent walks on tiptoe, a finger to its lips, trying not to distract her.
This is a season of deep night warmed by soft candles; an elegaic time of longing, for healing, for the reunion of human and divine, for justice, for enduring joy. Advent gives a voice to this perennial longing, but in a peaceful tone. It barely breathes. It does not speak above a whisper. It waits.
We crave the silence and the calm of these four weeks, and a quiet Advent is good for us, to be sure; but a quiet Advent is surprisingly out of kilter with the typical scriptures of the season. Their decibel level is high. They suggest a ruckus, not a retreat.
Right away, the very first week, stars fall from the sky, blood-streaked moons collide, nations groan in distress, thrown into a panic by the roaring of the ocean’s roiling waves. The heavens pass away in a reverse big bang, the elements dissolving in fire.
Once we get the apocalypse out of the way, we think the season will settle down. Not so. The Lectionary texts of the three liturgical cycles rev up the ruckus. They beg God to rip open the heavens and send down torrents of justice that hit the parched earth with ear-splitting force. The Lord comes, and mountains quake; fire erupts, crackling in brushwood; water heats up until it steams and boils
Advent is shrill with raised voices. There’s the Baptist crying in the wilderness and reaming out the brood of vipers. There’s the herald running across the high mountains announcing good news at the top of her lungs, “Here is your God!” And there’s singing, there’s lots of singing, enough exultation to keep the Daughter of Zion’s neighbors tossing and turning well into the wee hours.
No one gets any sleep in Advent texts; it’s a season for insomniacs—wake up, stay awake, watch, and keep watching, heads up, on your feet, the texts demand. Even the Virgin doesn’t sit still. The minute the angel leaves the room, Mary rushes off, up and over the Galilean hills, like that noisy herald, headed for her cousin’s house. And when she arrives, she breaks into (what else?) a great big stage number—a song so loud and disruptive it is echoing still. Meanwhile, in Elizabeth’s womb, John kicks hard with a fierce and leaping joy.
It’s a loud, vigorous, and purposeful season, if you go by the texts. God’s sleeves are rolled up, the Lord is harvesting, winnowing, clearing the threshing floor, gathering in the wheat. Sweaty blacksmiths are swinging heavy hammers on clanging anvils, beating swords into plowshares in stifling forges. Heavy equipment is all lined up for the Big Dig of God, ready to bulldoze, level, straighten, build.
What are we to make of this noisy Advent? Aren’t we already sleep-deprived? Aren’t we already over-busy and running on empty? Already too talkative, making too much noise in this world? We hardly need scriptural encouragement to talk more than we already talk, look busier than we already look. Is that what this is about? Do we need new texts for Advent that don’t make such a racket, texts that conform more nearly to our inclination to center in and hunker down?
No, not unless we want to mistake a mood for a truth. And the scriptural truth is this: Our healing is a long, hard labor; our salvation a heavy breathing affair. Its accomplishment is earth-shattering. The approach of God in the Child sets off a festival whose riotous glee shakes the stars from their fixtures in the ceiling of creation; and the justice that bores into the world through his appearance makes every creature sing. Long and loud.
We ought to be attentive and still in Advent. We should wait in patience and keep a finger to our lips. We do well to tiptoe softly and use our indoor voices; but if we hush up and cease from frenzy these four weeks, let it be only so that we can better hear the noise that saves us. Let it be so that we can better feel the vibrations of the work that heals us. It would be sad and ungrateful of us to try to shush the hubbub of this most noisy season. It would be sad and ungrateful of us not to love it for what it is—the crashing and banging the promises of God make as they all come true.