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No Longer Longing: Advent Reflection

Originally published on December 2014

by Mr. John Chong Ser Choon

 

“Soon it will be Christmas Day” so goes one popular Christmas song. Christmas is indeed around the corner. Another word associated with the birth of Christ is “Advent.” It simply means “coming.” The word covers not just the birth of Christ, His first advent, but also anticipates His second coming, the second Advent. The Christian tradition placed Advent as the first event in the Christian Year1, commencing on the first Sunday of December.

In the first coming, the people of Israel had been waiting for at least four hundred years. Simeon was one such person mentioned in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:25-35). He was already an old man, but what he finally beheld brought great consolation and contentment. Today, we celebrate Christmas as a past event: God has come in the flesh. But we are not just looking back in wonder every year, are we? There will be a second advent of Christ. The parallel question then, is whether we have the same intense longing as shown by Simeon? Already, it has been two thousands years long, maybe too long for any longing to last.

How can the significance of the Advent event, one fulfilled, the other still future provide some perspectives to our busy lives in Singapore and in the churches? I like to use two phrases, set in contrast to help us in this reflection. These phrases are “the balanced life” and “a rhythm of grace.” The second phrase is more frequently invoked in conversations related to Christian spirituality. The first has been around for ages, and is both a Christian battle cry and slogan. To state the two postures in even sharper contrast: Do we live our Christian life as a balancing act, juggling more and more roles and tasks, or is there a more basic, simpler rhythm, a time for this one thing, and therefore not other things?

Most Christians will answer “No” to the first question and then question the practicality of the second. Do these answers reflect again the reality of life filled with unending doings versus the occasional eruption of deeper longing in our being? What are these doings? 2 Here are some observations and critique. 

  • We are busy. Society or church, workplace or home, busyness is the norm. We all know it, acknowledged it, agreed that the busyness affects our spiritual well-being but we keep on being busy, and do not make efforts (do not know how?) to step out of this drivenness to examine or critique it.
  • We are programme (purpose) driven. Churches and para-churches have visions and missions that translate into programmes and events, all normal and part of corporate life and witness. I acknowledge the great need to witness for Christ to a hurting world. The Lord also does honour and bless such programmes and events. But what is often left unsaid and not dealt with are the down sides of a programme-driven ministry: spiritual dryness, tiredness, shallow spirituality, focus on externals, treating people as office bearers, human resources to meet key objectives or to run programmes. Committed Christians who are committed must serve. Therefore, they are servants, functionaries, do-ers. There is a lack of attention paid to encouragement and affirmation, to walk alongside with, to listen to, to relate as persons in community, (rather than as co-workers, what a bland term!), fellow Christ-followers in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.
  • We are spiritually dry (or drying up). We joke that we are “running on empty”, “running like headless chicken”, “burning out” but we keep running and are still running. There is a sense of hunger, longing for a spiritual reality or experience that is beyond church attendance and service. But somehow, we do not know how to articulate it or where to start looking to meet such hunger for a deeper Christian experience or relationship with God. There is a growing dissatisfaction with ministry and church life.
  • We spiritualize too much. What is especially horrifying (repugnant?) is that instead of acknowledging and becoming more attentive to the soul’s hunger, we ignore, deny (suppress) it by spiritualization. “All things work for good to those who love God” must be the most spiritualized and abused verse in the Bible. The terrible implication is that we run the risk of no longer speak truthfully, but shadow dance with each other with a set of pseudo- spiritual language. The resultant loss of authenticity can be tragic, more so that it may not even noticed.

What are our longings? We long for rest, and indeed a balanced life. Not a work or ministry ethic that is just merely to work hard, serve hard, and even to play hard. In such an ethic, either way, life is hard to balance.

Advent is part of the Christian Year, which in turn is based on the life of Christ. Thus, every “new” year, we start afresh to remember Christ’s birth and “follow” him from cradle to cross, from the grave to the sky. This is however, no boring re-run. The life of Christ, now the Living One (Rev 1:18) revitalizes us, as month after month, we are immersed in the spiritual significance of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.

This is a rhythm of grace. This rhythm does not make our busyness disappear. Rather, it regulates it, gradually infiltrating our unending doings with a bigger vision than just getting the tasks done, giving us a deeper anchorage that is steady even when the balls drop. More crucially, this rhythm of grace follows the life of Christ, not the agendas of human doings. This rhythm provides a different drumbeat, one that is life giving, not life draining.

This is the rhythm modelled by God when after six days of work he “rested on the seventh day from all his work.” (Gen 2:2) This is the rhythm that the Preacher referred to as there being a time for one thing, and a time for another (Eccl 3:1-8). This is the rhythm that the desert father Antony the Egyptian learnt when he saw a man working, then standing up to pray, then sitting down again to work, and then standing again to pray. 3A rhythm that can be likened to the pendulum of a grandfather’s clock swinging from left to right, and from right to left. A rhythm of grace that must oscillate from labour to rest, and rest to labour. (On the contrary, there is perhaps another rhythm that is one of dis-grace. That rhythm has a number: 247365. Let the reader understand?)

Some years ago, also during the Christmas season, a Straits Times article in the section on Thinking Aloud, set a poser: “Time to ponder the merits of being less busy?” 4The writer, Warren Fernandez, wrote that in the Internet age, “we’re so accessible, we’re so inaccessible. We can’t find the off switch on our device or ourselves … We are everywhere – except where we actually are.” That article was written in 2006. Are we less busy today? Or do we have even less time to ponder the merits of being less busy?

“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth” goes another song for the season. Christians surely want more than that. And we have more to long for. Not more balls to juggle and roles to balance. But nothing less than the final advent of Christ, when the ultimate longing will be fulfilled, and equally important, where all evil and injustice will be rightly judged, and all grief and sorrows will be comforted because justice is served, and where joy, not busyness abounds.

Are you busy, with loads to do still as the year draws to a close? What do you long for in this Advent season? Add that longing to your Christmas list of things to do? Maybe even elevate to the top of the list? Come, Lord Jesus.

 


1 There are two wonderful books to read up if you are interested to know more about the Christian Year: Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year – Time to Inhabit The Story
of God; James Houston, Letters of Faith Through the Seasons: A Treasury of Great Christians’ Correspondence (Vol. 1 & 2)
2 The following section is adapted from a private paper written by this writer and presented in 2008 to a spiritual formation fellowship run by Trinity Life Community.
3 Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.
4 Warren Fernandez, “Time to ponder the merit of being less busy?” Straits Times, 23 Dec 2006.

 


MR. JOHN CHONG SER CHOON

Director of Trinity Life Community, (a spiritual formation resource ministry that he started in July 2004) and BGST Adjunct lecturer. His vision is to serve the Christian community through conducting spiritual retreats, teaching seminars on spiritual formation and holistic Christian living.

Contributor: John Chong Ser Choon
Presented by:  BGST

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