Virtues for Advent

It is now advent, the season in which the Church waits for the coming of Christ—both the celebration of his coming in the past (Christmas) as well as the promise of his future coming. We reflect on what we received in his incarnation, and on what it means to prepare for his return. Anticipation fills the air and we cultivate a sense of anticipation and longing in our hearts. Over time, the church has curated a series of texts that speak to the longing of the season, which reflect on Israel’s hopes for the Messiah, and narratives of the preparatory work of John the baptist, and Jesus’s birth.

I was reading something about hospitality earlier today, and it struck me that the virtue of being hospitable fits well with the spirit of the advent season. I began to think of other “advent” virtues, traits of character highlighted and commended by the season. Here’s what I came up with, though I’d welcome your thoughts on others.

Patience

Essential to the advent spirit, patience calls us to wait without frustration. It cultivates longing for God’s work not-yet-accomplished, and makes us eager for the shalom of the reconciled world. And yet, that eagerness and longing has to be held with patience, with a resistance to responses like wrath or despair over the sin and brokenness we still experience. Advent, the spirit of conscious waiting, cultivates our desire for Christ’s coming and a patience for the meanwhile.

Hospitality

Hospitality caught my eye as an advent virtue. The narratives of Jesus’s birth point toward this virtue, with the familiar language of “no room at the inn” and Mary’s willingness to welcome the child into her own being, and thus into the world. At the core of advent is the practice of preparing ourselves to receive Christ, which also prepares us to receive the stranger in whom Christ may be alive.

Justice

Advent primes us for justice, turning our eyes to places where the broken world cries out for redemption and vindication by God. We hear the cries of those who say, “How long, O Lord?”. We move to solidarity with them. We look for ways to work towards just relief in the present, while we wait for the world to receive the fully restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ’s appearing.

Generosity

Advent reminds us that what we seem to possess now is simply stewarded for the king who is coming. It loosens our grip on the things we have, and calls us to become more generous givers, like the ancient magi who traveled far not to receive from Christ the king, but to lay their gifts before him.

Humility

Advent forces us to reckon with our own weaknesses and the limits of our own capacities. We become aware of the big problems beyond our reach, and confess our need for Christ. We also recognize that in Christ’s return there is a reversal coming, whereby the great and powerful are laid low, and the lowly and humble are lifted up, (as in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53):

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Perseverance

Perseverance and patience are twin virtues, though there is enough distinction between the two to warrant listing them separately. To me, patience is more about the continued passive endurance of something difficult, while perseverance more actively pushes through the difficulty. Patience is about not giving up, perseverance is about keeping going. Advent encourages both, I think, and on the Perseverance side we are encouraged to continue joining Christ in the work he is doing—the work that he began in the era of the gospels, and which he will bring to completion in his return.

Practicing the Advent Virtues

These virtues blow through the air in advent, calling for our attention and intention. Let me offer a few simple steps towards practicing them with greater deliberateness.

  1. Take a few days meditating through these virtues, one for each day. Or, perhaps just select one and meditate on it throughout the season, take just five or fifteen minutes a day to consider what it means to be more just or hospitable in the season.
  2. One form of such meditation might be journaling, which you could easily prime by taking the virtues above and jotting them at the top or bottom of the next several pages of your journal, as a prompt to think about when you get to that page.
  3. Challenge the people you live with to lean into these virtues for a week or so.
  4. Connect these virtues to texts that remind you of what they mean. (If you’re doing number 3, this would be a great thing to share with your friends and family via quick texts. Bonus for gifs!)
  5. Take a day to take stock of where you are with one of these virtues. Where are you in developing patience, or generosity? How do you know?
  6. Consider other “Advent Virtues”? In what other ways does this season provoke us to cultivate the character of Christ?

I’d love to hear your answers on this last one. Feel free to either comment here or on facebook, or send a reply to @stevenhovater on twitter!

Public Virtue

 

Daily, public figures reveal their lack of basic human decency. This shame of our age displays itself constantly through the hour-long news cycle, with a sexual assault by an actor revealed at noon just before a politician’s unethical exploits hits the wire at 1:00, to be followed by shady dealings of the media itself in the 2:00 hour. Later that day we’ll find the failings of a sports star deliciously paired with the current faux pas of a B- list producer. By the evening, boorish comments from a social media star will begin to register, and there is sure to be some backlash. The evening will certainly bring troubled news from a corporation whose PR machine can’t keep the wrong story out of the news.

A portion of the deluge can be chalked up to the purveyors of news, whose responsibility to fill the networks’ time slots with controversy must impose a heavy burden. This week, I was at the gym on the stationary bike, and thus subjected to the cable news networks dueling stories. CNN and Fox News were competing for my attention with ticker crawls proclaiming “Fashion becomes Political”, and “Twitter Comments Spark Outrage”. They can’t churn out enough real news to pay the bills. I couldn’t pedal fast enough to escape.

There is more to the story than the coverage, though—the exhibits of bad character littered thought the public square are simply what happens when people who neglect character formation remain on display for longer than they can maintain the façade. Of course, few of them were given status because of their character in the first place. We give people fame and power in exchange for a very narrow set of skills (or because they have risen through serendipitous circumstances), and are surprised that such persons fail in tests of character. This surprise is perhaps the most hopeful part of the equation—perhaps something survives within us that truly does desire to see goodness from people.

And yet character formation remains neglected, not only by the famous folk, but by most people. Too few people have mentors helping them develop character, too few have practices that cultivate virtue and which restrain our vices. Humanity seems to recognize the importance of character, but to ignore the paths that lead to its formation.

This, too, makes me believe in the critical mission of the church.