Embracing Advent

by Marshall Scott

I am deep these days in the process of transition. The circumstances are good: I’ve taken a new position within the health care system in which I’ve served for a long time. I’m excited and scared, and certainly honored with the opportunity.

At the same time, I don’t like transition. My dislike is sufficient that I’ve found it hard to write about – or even to write at all.

It’s not that I don’t like change. In general I do. I like new restaurants and new food. I have a history, when I have some time, to wander down a new street, whether in the car or on foot, just to see what’s down there.

But, what I like is, having been in the old place, to feel settled in the new place. I like being here or there. I just don’t like being in the middle.

After all, the middle feels uncertain, insecure. I have left one office, and am not yet settled in another. I have confidence in the skills that brought me to this place. I’m just not sure yet of the skills I will need to do the new position justice. I have a learning curve for the new job, and some loose ends to settle from the old one. I trust, by God’s grace, that in due time I will feel as comfortable in the job I have taken as I did in the job I left. I trust – but I’m not there yet.

I don’t like transition, and I live among a people who don’t like transition. You might think we would become accustomed to it. We are a culture that seems always to embrace the new. We herald the innovators and the “early adopters.” Our Buddhist siblings have noted one thing that we all experience: change is a basic truth of life. We call our society “fast paced” and “forward thinking.” Of all people we ought to be used to change.

And yet we don’t. We don’t like that sense of unsettledness, of uncertainty. We don’t like having to acknowledge a sense of incompetence or uneasiness or unreadiness. We talk about embracing change, but many of us want to be one place or another. We don’t like transition, that place in between.

Perhaps that explains our society’s leap to over Advent to get to Christmas. We have long noted how all around us our society starts embracing the Nativity before the kids have recovered from the indigestion of Halloween. Indeed, a few stores and a few radio stations started their references to Christmas before Halloween. Now, we can be realistic about the importance of the holiday season for retail sales. We can bemoan the loss of religiosity in our wider society. I wonder, though, if it isn’t in some part about discomfort with transition.

After all, Advent is all about transition. After spending the better part of a year moving from the Nativity to the feast of Christ the King, in Advent we seem to reverse that process in four weeks. We return in our lessons to the unsettled time into which John the Baptizer strode, a time when the crowds sought hope in the midst of uncertainty. We focus in our proclamation on preparation, highlighting our own sense of a “learning curve” in being ready for Christ’s kingdom. We step toward the end into perhaps the most mysterious transition of all: the pregnancy of a young woman. Obviously, I’ve never been pregnant; but I’ve been involved in two, and have observed many more. I can’t imagine a time of transition more profound, and yet more uncertain and anxious. The new parents I’ve known – the new parent I’ve been! – have all imagined life with a new baby, rather than the day to day changes that are part and parcel of pregnancy. Is it any surprise that our society, shaped by a Christian history that is denied but not entirely dissolved, should also want to jump over the transition to look at the baby?

Which is all the more reason that we people of faith need to slow down and embrace Advent. If our preparation for the Kingdom, and for the Nativity with which it begins, is to be meaningful, it must include learning and training, and even unease. Any other important endeavor in our lives requires this. Our goals, whether personal or professional, athletic or artistic or economic, require exercise, discipline, and education. Can our preparation for the Kingdom require anything less?

I don’t enjoy transition, and yet if I’m to do well my new job, I need the steps and stages and discovery that transition is made of. We might rather celebrate the Reign of Christ, and then jump straight to the birth of Christ who will reign. We still need the time and the training and the discoveries that Advent is made of. We might find it uncomfortable. Some might at first find it pointless, a series of distracting details while they wait for the really important events. We know better: that it is the details and the stories and the discoveries of Advent that help us understand the Kingdom we seek, and help us welcome the King who will be born.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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