This Advent I am preparing to celebrate Christmas with my family in our new home in Cambridge. So far our transition to life in the UK has been relatively smooth and fairly painless. In fact the vast majority of the time, we simply love it here.
But Advent and Christmas are saturated with memories and associations. Maybe more than any other time of year, Christmas and the time leading up to it are redolent with sights, sounds, smells and tastes that transport us to another time, another place. And so the more I have experienced Advent and the anticipation of Christmas here, the more I am – ironically – somewhere else.
Frango Mint Chocolates are one of my memories not only of Christmastime but also of my hometown, Chicago. They are made and sold by Marshall Field’s Department Stores, and both the candies and the stores are distinctly Chicago institutions. Frangos are a popular Christmas gift and end-of-the-year indulgence. They are a sultry, luxurious delight, chocolate and mint melting in your mouth, leaving your taste buds begging for more.
My in-laws, who have come to spend the holidays with us, were good enough to bring us a box. I leapt on them. (In fact, I ate three while composing the last paragraph – purely for research, you understand.) And tasting them, I found myself standing on State Street, in the heart of Chicago’s Loop, in front of Marshall Field’s, as a child, standing in the snow, looking in at the Christmas windows with my parents. This one taste vividly summoned for me sights and sounds of a quarter century ago. Memory is an amazing thing.
But what if it’s not only meant to work in reverse?
What if we are also meant to remember in advance?
As every year passes, I become more attracted to the Advent theme of looking ahead – not just to the coming of Jesus in the manger, but the return, the final Advent of Jesus. We look for that final return when things will be set right, justice and peace will embrace, when the whole creation will know God, and God will be all in all.
I know we usually talk about this in terms of hope, and I don’t disagree. But I have a harder time getting my arms around hope. It feels more abstract, more like a pie-in-the-sky, wish-upon-a-star kind of thing.
But what if instead of just hoping for something which is not yet, we could remember something which is not fully yet? What if a sight, sound, smell, taste or texture could capture us and transport us to another time and place, which is yet future? What if we could take that small, fertile memory and let it open up into an incalculably larger picture? It seems to me that this would allow us to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the reign of God which is already here through the ministry of Christ, and which is not yet here in its fullness.
When we are reconciled with someone, when we see justice done, when we reach out across a surprising boundary, when someone feels the energy and vision which can only be called new life, when the poor or the suffering find hope and deliverance, when someone comes to God – or returns to God – these help us to re-member, to put together again the whole from parts, of what lies ahead of us in God. And, I think, it leaves us begging for more.
This vivid anticipation, this remembering in advance, is a means of nourishment for our waiting, watching, working and worshipping for the day when it will be complete. In short, perhaps, it will be a way of cultivating a hopeful imagination.