He knew he was dying. I had been called home from across the country. After a frail but intimate greeting in his hospital room, my father looked straight at me and said, “Remember what you promised, even if I don’t make it another week.” He didn’t. He died the next day, and his funeral was held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the day before Advent I. But I kept my promise; we sang all seven verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” his favorite hymn. My father’s faith was deep and private and full of expectation.
As Augustine of Hippo reminded us, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Our hearts are expecting to meet God. God has “placed eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, CEB). We are hardwired for expectation, and yet it can go so very wrong. Holy expectation can easily be distorted by fear, competition, privilege. Our expectations become demands or entitlements, well-justified reasons why we deserve more than others or, worse yet, are more worthy than our neighbor.
I love Advent. It is an entire liturgical season dedicated to (re)forming our expectations. From the first Sunday when we are invited to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” we are being prepared to recognize what is to come. We are invited to repent of the ways in which our longings have turned us away from God and to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ.” At a mundane but not insignificant level, we are encouraged to practice restraint in a season of hyper-consumerism, focusing instead on practices of prayer, hospitality, and service. By the fourth Sunday, we cry out to God, “purify our conscience” because we know our worldly expectations are insufficient, often toxic. We need to be cleansed if we are to begin to understand the radical good news of the incarnation and the eschatological coming of Christ at the end of time.
I have no idea what my father actually believed theologically. What I know is that he expected to meet God at his death and insisted that we sing the song of his expectation. May Advent form and fill your expectations.