We aggrandize time. It certainly possesses power over us. It irreversibly moves us in one direction and can’t be replayed to different ends. But time does not dictate the direction we face as we move. Time pulls us forward, but lacks the power to force us to face the direction it travels.
We see this limit of time’s power play out in the Old Testament Hebrew conception of time. Antithetical to the modern conception of time, which uses forward-facing language (i.e. “I have to face what the future brings” or “I’m looking forward to the weekend”), the Hebrew conception of time uses backward-facing language. Chad Bird points out the linguistic evidence for this.
“For the Hebrews, the past is ‘kedem’, in front of them. And the future is ‘aharit’; it is behind them. So in a sense, you could say, that they walked into the future facing backward. They were moving forward in time, to be sure, but their eyes were not focused on what was to be, but instead, what had already been.”
We practice walking backward into the future every December despite using forward-facing language. The evidence hangs on our Christmas trees. Twenty-year-old childhood crafts, hand-me-downs from generations past, gifts to mark special occasions. As we hang the ornaments on our trees we pivot to face what has been as we move toward what will be. We prepare for the future Christmas looking back on Christmases past.
Likewise, the season of Advent rotates our view to what has been as we move ever closer to what is to come. We see evidence of the hope we have for the future: God’s acts of mercy, love, and salvation on behalf of us, his people. Works manifested most fully in the incarnate life, death, and resurrection of the Word made flesh (John 1:14), Jesus, the Son of God.
As we gaze upon the Christ child, the infant priest, God in the flesh laid in the manger, we remember that he did not come to stay there. As we survey the cross, where the sins of the world where laid on the God-man who died for the forgiveness of all, we remember that he did not come to stay there. As we peer in the tomb where his lifeless body laid, we remember he did not come to stay there.
Advent directs us to where he ascended, where he took the flesh of humanity he assumed.
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides, sealed with seven seals. I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. I wept and wept because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Look, the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw one like a slaughtered lamb standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders… He went and took the scroll out of the right hand of the one seated on the throne.
When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb… And they sang a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered, and you purchased people for God by your blood
from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:1–9)
As we wonder at the incarnate resurrected Jesus on the throne, we remember he did not ascend to stay there. He reigns forevermore. But, the throne, in a sense, will be empty as the manger, the cross, and the tomb stand empty, but only for a time. We anticipate and prepare for the time when Christ the king will leave his throne and advent, “arrive” to judge the living and the dead.
In the same way, every Sunday serves as a mini Advent, a mini preparation, as we rehearse for Christ’s return. In the words of the invocation, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he calls us to look to our baptism. He directs us to the moment in time he united himself, his life, death, and resurrection to us. When he washes away our sin with ordinary water and his Word.
Through confession and absolution, God repents us. He turns us around. He positions us backward to face sins we cannot change. But in the same breath, he faces us toward Christ’s atoning sacrifice which earned forgiveness for those sins.
We continue facing backward as we recount the glorious and gracious works of God in Christ. Christ enters our hearts and minds through our ears as we hear the Word sung, recited, preached, and prayed.
Facing backward still, we participate in a foretaste of the feast to come. We look back upon Christ’s words of promise, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”. These words fulfilled in his past death and resurrection. In this meal his body and blood come to us in, with, and under physical bread and wine. And he sustains us in our anticipation of his final advent.
Each Sunday God places the future behind us and past in front of us. He turns us around to look and remember what he has done for us. He faces us backward to where our hope for the future lies: the person and work of Christ, crucified for our sins and risen to give us life. We rehearse his first advent as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament. In doing so, we anticipate his ultimate return, an advent at which every knee will bow.