Advent is the church's relationship with time. Probably, were you to ask what bothers the world most about Christianity, asuuming a world still capable of disciplined critical thinking (I have my doubts), on the short list would be the embarrassment of time.
It is no secret that our best evidence of earlier Christianity points to an expectation of an eminent return of Jesus, the natural culmination of apocalyptic stirrings since the destruction of Solomon's Temple in early Sixth Century B.C. and the rise and fall of Herod's decades after Jesus was on earth. And nothing is more persuasive in our bag of theological tools than talk of Christ's return. Nor, however, is anything more embarrassing.
The liturgical calendar is here to save the day. It reminds us of two things as we "have to muddle through somehow" with our tradition of inquisitive angst: "How long, O LORD?" and "Why have you forsaken me?" First, not knowing is not the same as not expecting. Christianity ain't Easy Street. It's tracking our master down that Via Dolorosa. Advent is the starting block. And we bite our tongues before we sing our "First Noel" because embarrassment is where the trail leads, not assumption. So our not knowing is wrapped in expectation, and we risk further embarrassment because we follow the master unassumingly. Second, the liturgical calendar indicates that this, indeed, is the practice of the church on earth and, thereby, her tradition of faith. In other words, while this is a Painful Way, we don't go it alone. Somehow being embarrassed together isn't as difficult. And there's comfort in the wisdom of a tradition of good news that isn't afraid to risk embarrassment.
As we begin Advent this week, take heart that you take part in a tradition of faith so firm on its foundation that it even takes on its own embarrassment unapologetically. "You're absolutely right. Jesus is long in coming. But we keep our lamps trimmed and lit and continue to do our jobs faithfully, as if the journeyman were to return and collect on his investments tomorrow." The beauty of Advent--our candles, our rein-pull on the Christmas carols, our themes from cosmos to cradle--is that we face time together, each embarrassingly painful tick and tock turned expectation of "Joy to the World." But not yet.