Why do some churches begin their celebration of Advent, which is Latin for “arrival” and refers to Christ’s coming, a month before Christmas? Are they taking their cue from Walmart and trying to leverage the holiday to maximize worship attendance?
The church I joined after my conversion did not celebrate Advent and was generally suspicious of any worship traditions that predated the Reformation. Having grown up in a non-religious home, I knew nothing about the Advent Season. Even after I became a pastor, I found the concept confusing.
The muddle began with the first Sunday in Advent, when the church’s historic prayers and its Scripture readings are all about Jesus’s Second Coming. For example, on the first Sunday in Advent this year, the collect – the short, themed prayer for the day’s worship – refers to “the last day, when [Christ] shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.”
Focusing on Christ’s Second Coming seems an odd way to prepare oneself to celebrate his first. The order is backwards. Would it not make better sense to begin our Christmas preparations by concentrating on Christ’s first coming, with its humble stable and manger, its wise men and shepherds?
But there is wisdom in the liturgical calendar. For one thing, observing the Advent season for nearly a month prior to Christmas helps us become better at an essential skill of the spiritual life: the ability to wait. The reality that we must wait, and trust God as we do, is a theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. Spending a month actively waiting for Christmas is a spiritual strength-builder.
Patience, which is indispensable to the spiritual life, is impossible when a person does not know what he is waiting for. And not just impossible, but absurd – think of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” But in the first week of Advent, the church’s worship reminds her people what they are waiting for.
So, Christians begin their time of waiting with a reminder of what is coming. Hence, the Old Testament reading for the first week of Advent speaks of a time when people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” No more war, no need of enormous defense budgets, no threat of nuclear holocaust, but rather peace. That is worth waiting for.
During Advent, worshipers are not only reminded of what they are waiting for, but also of who they are waiting for. In the Gospel reading for the first week of Advent, Christians are reminded that it is their own Lord Jesus whose coming and reign will launch a new era of peace and joy.
When the first coming of Jesus is removed from its place in the larger biblical narrative, what is left is a melodrama about a pregnant teen, the rejection she and her young husband experienced, and the challenging circumstances that surrounded the birth of her special baby. This story has often been told in a way that is not just sweet but sappy and misses the point entirely.
Something similar happens when the story of Christ’s death is removed from its place in the larger biblical narrative. In both cases, God ceases to be the protagonist of the story, the purpose he pursues is forgotten, and the point of the story is reduced to a moral – helpful advice for readers and listeners to follow.
When we return the story of Jesus’s birth to its place in God’s plan and purpose for creation, which Advent Season can help us do, it is filled with hope. The profound importance of Jesus’s birth to God’s purpose for humanity becomes apparent. Instead of a morality tale, we have a rescue account – and a promise that creation will be set right.
Advent observance can keep us from losing the glory and promise of Christmas in the rush of the season and the banality of retail sales. It can reintroduce the wonder of the holiday and renew our hope in the God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.