It's more than we typically think.
We invariably will meet an extreme with another extreme, sometimes to the detriment of both.
Advent is a solemn season, one of reflection, one of anticipation, but also one of utter seriousness. To the Medieval Christian, the four Sundays of Advent were named “Death,” “Judgment,” “Heaven” and “Hell.” Other than “Heaven,” a time of relief from the grim reminders of our mortality and pending accountability, we mistakenly believe that these are hardly marketable names to entice those who get caught up in our secular season of blinking lights, tinsel, drunken office parties, and exorbitant spending to buy into our faith. So, we have gone to the opposite extreme by naming the four Sundays “Hope,” “Peace,” “Joy” and “Love” to make them more compatible with contemporary sensibilities.
In the cemetery next to one of my favorite Anglican churches, St. Michael’s in Charleston, South Carolina, is a colonial gravestone with the skull and crossbones on top of it. Before this symbol became adopted by pirates, it was a Christian symbol called a “memento mori,” a reminder that we must all die. We Americans do everything we can to avoid the inevitability of our death. But sometimes events creep in which bring this grim reality to the forefront, regardless of how we try to avoid the reality of death. We are now contending with this deadly and pernicious virus which cries, “I am a cold and vicious memento mori.”
I am suggesting that other than ponder one extreme of Advent Sunday names to the exclusion of the other extreme is that we preserve both and meditate on both. Advent should remind us of our mortality and our pending death, it should be a memento mori; but it should also remind us that we have hope in the anticipated coming of our Savior, and that death is not the end of the believer but a portal in which we enter a new beginning.
We should see our lives at this Advent season as a time to ponder what truly is important. To remind us of the King who came humbly on earth two millennia ago and died on a cross, but who will come again in triumphant glory. That we are now members of a Kingdom that is but is not yet.
Advent should also remind us that as today’s reading from Isaiah 43:7 puts it, you and I have been created us for His glory, to manifest His glory in our daily lives and in the work He has given us to do. Therefore, we should repent of our sluggishness and slumber, and wake up and be alert. Advent should remind us that we will, in the future, give an account to our Savior for what we have done with the gifts He has given to us, but that at the end of this disquieting encounter will come the quiet of peace. And yes, as we meditate on Heaven, we are reminded that it is a place of unmitigated joy, joy unspeakable.
And finally, Hell is a reminder of the terrible fate of those who refuse God’s grace. Hell is a place in which each individual will exist in total isolation, a place where they will burn in their own resentments, where there will be gnashing of teeth in anger, rebellion, and the loneliness of self-centeredness. It is love that those in hell reject. Of all the Biblical characters who spoke of hell, Jesus spoke of it more often than any other. He used the smoldering garbage pit in a valley outside the city of Jerusalem, where children were once burned alive as sacrifices to Moloch, named Gehenna as the symbol of eternal punishment, often as the fate of the so-called religious leaders of his day. Religious leaders whom Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel called false shepherds.
In our contemporary desire to market Christianity as alternatives to moderns, we rarely if ever preach on hell, despite it being one of Jesus’ major themes. We only preach the bright side of the Gospel, the “benefits” of receiving it, while avoiding the dark side of the Gospel, what happens when we reject it. Not so with believers of the past. They understood that it is not our Savior’s intent that any should end up in the smoldering, eternal garbage pit outside of the new Celestial City.
Advent reminds us that we have a solemn duty to pray for those we love, that they might learn to truly love. It is love that ushers us into God’s grace.