The hook line, “Anticipation is … keeping me waiting,” was juxtaposed with an open, upside-down ketchup bottle tantalizing us with its crimson treasure oozing out ever so slowly. We had several tricks to hurry the ketchup out – shake the bottle hard before opening, stick a table knife into the bottle, and so on. Then somewhere in the last twenty years Heinz made a revolutionary invention in ketchup dispensing — the upside-down squeeze bottle. We don’t have to wait for our ketchup any longer. Anticipation has been displaced by instant delivery.
It reminds me of what the church encounters in its Advent observance. It’s a season devoted to anticipating the Lord’s coming, yet we want to rush forward to the event itself. We simply hate waiting. Christmas clamors to be celebrated as soon as merchants stock their holiday shelves and stores begin playing seasonal music. By Christmas Day, we’re ready to pack it in. Ubiquitous over the airwaves as Christmas approaches, holiday music disappears somewhere between Christmas morning and its afternoon football games.
Worship helps us sustain Advent anticipation when everything around us insists, “Christmas is here!” No need to wait; turn the “ketchup bottle” upside down and squeeze.
Why is it so important to sustain Advent’s anticipation? One primary reason is that Advent schools us in learning to wait expectantly for Jesus to come again. Another is that anticipation augments the splendor of the event itself.
A big part of Advent worship is its music. We haven’t always had a good supply of Advent hymns available. For instance, the old red hymnbook that many of us grew up with offered just seven hymns specifically tied to Advent. Our current Presbyterian Hymnal has increased that to 19. We are better equipped to keep from rushing early into Christmas when we have a good supply of anticipatory hymns.
Still, Christmas is difficult to defer. Christmas carols evoke precious memories, transporting us to places treasured in our hearts. Virtually any church group can go on for a half hour or more singing “by heart” a verse or two of dozens of Christmas songs, even though we sing them just once a year. Try doing that with Advent hymns! Congregations are eager to get to the chase with their favorite carols in worship, especially when they hear them everywhere around for countless weeks before Christmas.
The nurture of Advent anticipation is a task for which Lord’s Day worship is singularly well equipped. Whether we follow the Revised Common Lectionary or some other pattern for Sunday texts, readings during Advent can focus our attention on the arc of Biblical narrative anticipating the coming and the return of Christ. Weekly rehearsals of the Advent wreath ceremony in worship help anchor us in the discipline of waiting, as we leave the central Christ candle unlit until Christmas itself.
The Advent story is rich with images that can become icons to assist us in worship. I was raised by a family that read daily Bible stories from books filled with pictures. I will never forget the image of the prophet wondrously beholding a star rise above Bethlehem, or of Mary running breathlessly to greet pregnant Elizabeth. Much classic art represents Advent events from the Annunciation to John the Baptizer to the return of Christ. Advent is especially well suited for utilizing the power of images to help us grasp the story of our salvation – whether by projection, posters, bulletin inserts, or other means.
Advent also offers a superb opportunity to engage people in daily home worship. Many fine daily Advent devotional guides are commercially available, but I have discovered that “home-made” devotionals are particularly effective. While they are often written by pastoral leaders in coordination with Sunday readings, I have also seen wonderful devotionals comprised of contributions from members collected earlier in the year. Who knows but what a daily home worship pattern begun in Advent might stick for a longer period?
The essence of Christian worship is our outreach to the One for whom all creation yearns, for the “Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart,” as Charles Wesley prompts us to sing each Advent. Every act of worship is an Advent act, an overture to the One who is already here yet still to come, offered in joyous recognition that the One to whom we reach has already reached out to us. Thanks be to God!
SHELDON W. SORGE has taught Reformed Worship at the University of Dubuque and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminaries, and currently serves as pastor to Presbytery of Pittsburgh.