How does one make the transition from fast to feast, from Advent to Christmas joy? Perhaps I wouldn’t face this dilemma if I interpreted Advent in a more typical fashion: as a slow gearing up for Christmas. Then Advent would be suffused with a slowly brewing aroma of joy, and Christmas would mark only a modest change in intensity. At its best this is a gathering of consciousness around Christmas joy; but often it just seems to be a pointless period of waiting.
Instead, I took Advent–not without traditional precedent–as a period of fasting, in the sense of discovering and confessing how deeply far our world is from the Kingdom of God. (I saved confessing one’s own personal sin mostly for Lent, although it would be foolish to try to distinguish these fasting seasons completely.) The four virtues by which the Advent candles are named (hope, love, joy, and peace), rounded out by the “O!” Antiphons, provided me a framework to scrutinize how lacking our world is in these virtues.
Advent thus becomes a season dominated by the theological virtue of hope (with faith reigning up through Easter, and love dominating from Pentecost on–is that traditional?). The church thus assumes the position of waiting for Christ to come, poised somewhere between Israel awaiting the Messiah and the church awaiting the Second Coming (I know that this position does have deep roots in tradition). I also introduced a minor theme of Israel awaiting the Exodus; Advent focuses thus on captivity and bondage.
Advent is thus a gathering and sharpening of hopes, in which we project our hopes almost blindly upon the Coming One. Once Christmas comes, and Epiphany prompts us to think about God revealed and glorified, we can then begin again to learn how Jesus revealed fulfills our hopes, exceeds them, and also redirects or reigns them in: the world is not as godless as it may seem, even though we do well in Advent to feel the weight of its godlessness.
Behind all this is a theory of truth that is innately temporal, that takes an event (H. G. Gadamer) but also flowing character, that can never be exhaustively captured in any momentary appearance or representation. But we can find fairly adequate structures that allow us to move through a larger whole, that collect and contain the inevitably pluralistic nature of truth and prevent it from becoming a self-deconstructing jumble of one thing overturned by another. Great creeds are one such structure; great systematic theology is another. But my experiment, beginning with Advent, is whether the litrugical year can become an optimal such structure. (But still not completely adequate: there is a question of the gradual work towards the Kingdom of God that exceeds the span of a year; the great mass of tradition and church history that can hardly be represented therein; the many simultaneous manifestations of Christian faith among other confessions and among the privileged position of underprivileged peoples; the exceeding of all temporality that can only be roughly gestured toward during particular points of the year, etc.)
I feel sorry for my AAR colleagues who looked so dismayed when I told them I had taken a church job. It really is very interesting and spiritually as well as intellectually engaging; and besides, they are all grading right now.