Christmas decorations go up earlier and earlier every year in American stores. This past Halloween, shoppers looking for that list-minute spiderweb couldn’t find it. Instead, they found Christmas trees, wrapping paper, and Christmas songs pumping through the speakers. For many, the Christmas season can’t begin soon enough. They love hearing Wham! sing, “Last Christmas,” putting up their Christmas lights. In the church, however, the Christmas creep diverts our attention from an important season leading up to Christmas: Advent.
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, this year starting on December 3rd. It marks the beginning of the church year and the beginning of our celebration of the story of Jesus Christ. These four Sundays focus on stories like Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, John the Baptist’s ministry at the Jordan River, Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary, and Joseph’s decision to raise Jesus as his own.
Advent is not a time for celebration, however. The focus of the season is on repentance, discipline, and hopeful expectation. Advent works for Christmas the way Lent works for Easter. It’s a time for the Christian to fast and pray while we wait for the coming of the Lord.
Advent is different from Lent in that we focus more on the “comings” of Christ than on his death and resurrection. That’s where we get the word, Advent, after all, which comes from Latin, “ adventus.” It has a dual focus on preparing for Christ’s first coming as a humble child and Christ’s second coming as glorious king and almighty judge.
LIke much of the church’s celebrations, we don’t have great records about the origin of Advent. We have no record of the feast of Christmas itself until the fourth century, AD, where Duchesne records that Christians celebrated it across the church either on December 25th or on January 6th. Following that, there are a few records of celebrations with advent-like qualities, and also some individual bishops suggesting four or five weeks of preparation. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory VII that the feast became more regularized at four weeks.
Advent has developed more recently in its themes and significance. Recent church innovations include using an advent wreath to symbolize each week of the season. The wreath has four candles, three purple and one pink. Many people associate four virtues with the four candles: Faith, hope, love, and joy.
One of the ways we celebrate Advent is through corporate worship. Many congregations will tone down the excitement of their worship services. Our hymns slip into minor modes, and we sing about longing. Many churches will not sing the Gloria in Excelsis, either.
Churches will also change the colors of their church to either purple or blue. Purple, also the color of Lent, reminds us of Christ’s kingly office. In Advent, we long for the coming of the king to save us and to judge the world, and purple reminds us of that. Some churches, as a recent change, use blue instead of purple. Blue is the color that the Virgin Mary wears in traditional imagery.
These changes to worship help us to focus on the unfulfilled promises that Jesus gave us. It does so, but transporting us back into the expectations of ancient Israel, waiting for the Messiah. This also helps us to remember that Jesus, too, has promises for us that he will only fulfill on the day of his return.
This celebration is typified by the great Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel . This hymn takes the promises of the Old Testament and translates them into music. We step into the shoes of Israel and call on the messiah to come, using biblical titles. The verses come from the “O Antiphons,” which are as follows:
Many families and individuals have personal disciplines that they use to mark the season of Advent. Advent wreaths are a great way to involve the whole family in the season by lighting the candles before your evening meal together. It gives the children a way to be involved in family ritual by lighting the candles, and it gives you the opportunity to talk to them about the season. Kids will love it, too–there’s fire.
Advent is also a good time to take up a spiritual discipline. Traditionally, Advent is time for fasting, which often meant eating a vegan diet. I can tell you from experience, that few things make a season more repentant, and uncomfortable, like giving up meat and cheese. It’s a great way to focus on repentance and devotion to Christ.
The American Christmas celebration is all about excess. Parents buy lots of toys for their children, so many that they’re overwhelmed by the presents. Our offices throw huge Christmas parties, and everyone eats too much. We indulge ourselves with sappy Christmas movies where some plucky child saves Santa Clause or some other Hallmark channel feature.
The frantic pace of pre-Christmas life can distract us from the real reason why we celebrate: Jesus’ birth. By the time we arrive at Christmas day, most of us are so tired of celebrating that we can’t wait to get back to normal life. Advent disciplines help us to refocus on the spiritual reasons why we celebrate. If you incorporate just a little bit of devotional repentance in your routine, it can be a constant reminder during a crazy season.
Consider what altering your diet might do. If you decide to have a fast during the season, every Christmas party is a reminder of your Advent devotion. When you look at the amazing buffet, you’ll have to notice the foods you can’t eat. At home, you’ll have to cook new recipes and try different foods. And every time your change your routine, it will remind you of repentance and expectation.
When everyone around us is celebrating the Christmas season with overindulgence, the Christian church remembers that the days before Christmas are a time to repent and look, with expectation, to our coming savior. Celebrating Advent will add depth to your Christmas by helping you to focus our savior.
Comments will be approved before showing up.