Why Advent?

(Author’s note: This is a piece that I wrote originally for my personal blog Musings of a Bardling)

Today is the first Sunday of Advent in the traditional church calendar.  My church began the season by reflecting upon the prophet Isaiah’s message of comfort to God’s people, of the role of John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner, and the coming of God as King to His people.  We began to work through the old story once again, as we did last year during this time.

Though I have always loved Christmas, I only began to appreciate Advent more deeply several years ago.  For the uninformed, Advent is the season in the traditional Christian calendar (formulated by the Roman Catholic Church) between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in which Christians meditate upon and prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation and Birth of Jesus.  It is similar to Lent, in that it provides a season of reflection and preparation leading up to the celebration of a major event in the life of Christ.

Now, some fellow Protestants already get hung up on the fact that it is a “Catholic” celebration.  To them I would say this—if you celebrate Christmas (that’s Christ-mass) on December 25, then you are already participating in a Catholic celebration.  The fact is, no one knows exactly when Jesus was born, and the early Catholic church chose to celebrate His birth in December to co-opt pagan winter solstice celebrations, and give new converts an alternative to celebrate in their new faith.  Besides, Advent is not particularly Catholic in any way, as the focus is on Christ, and not on any particular doctrinal stances of any denomination.

That being said, why do I celebrate Advent?

Ever since I was a little kid, Christmas has been my favorite holiday of the year, and the Christmas season has been one of my favorite times of the year.  Initially it was probably due to the decorations we put up, the music we listened to, and the presents I knew would be waiting for me under the tree.  But as I got older, things started to change.  I began to sense that there was something more, just beyond those shining lights and those songs that spoke of God becoming man.  Even the winter skies felt like they held something waiting in the wings.  As Joni Eareckson Tada puts it in her book A Christmas Longing, “What was I looking for?  Why did I feel this mysterious pull to get away, go beyond, even ‘step into the other side’ of Christmas?”  That was what I felt, but could not put into words, and what I seem to feel more sharply as the years go by.  The presents and the decorations and the times with family are great, but I am haunted by the longing for something greater.  I think now I have begun to understand what that is, just as Joni did herself: “I know now that I was deep into a Christmas longing.  It’s a longing each of us senses this time of year—especially when we listen to the child inside of us.  It’s a desire to be home, to belong, to find fulfillment, complete and eternal.  Christmas is an invitation to a celebration yet to happen.”  I think it’s more than just listening to the child within us—I think it’s listening to the human within us.  The nature of our original creation was that we would gravitate toward God, like the earth gravitates to the sun and circles it.  Sin has sought to destroy that connection and set us up as our own gods, rulers of the dark, soulless orbs of our own worlds, rather than the happy subservients of God’s warm star.  The Incarnation is a powerful call back to our original design, because it is the moment when God became one of us, in order to bring us back to Himself.  It was the launching of His rescue mission toward all of creation.  Jesus plunged into the darkness of the shadow of death, as Isaiah describes it, in order to drag us back into the powerful and strengthening rays of God’s light.  And He did that by bringing that light with Him.  “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men,” says John (1:4).  Those who sense the light and long for it, gravitate to it when it appears.  Hence, the Christmas longing.

Advent has helped foster this feeling inside of me because it is built around nurturing this longing, and in doing so, feeding our souls.  It not only looks back to that time when God broke into the world through His Son, but looks forward to the time when Christ will return to complete His new creation work of restoring the entire cosmos, and will finally set the world to rights.  The term Advent itself reflects this, coming from the Latin adventus, which itself is a translation of the Greek work parousia, which is often used in the New Testament to refer to the Second Coming.  Thus the etymology of the term itself connects the two appearings of Christ in history, one which has happened, one which will happen.  And here we stand between the two.  In this way we find our connection with the covenant people of the past.  The Jews waited for centuries upon centuries for the fulfillment of the Messianic promises, and many faithful saints did not get to see their consummation, yet they walked faithfully.  We are more blessed to live in the times of the New Covenant (the book of Hebrews says we are) in which Christ has already accomplished so much.  But we also live in a tension that theologians like to call “the already and not yet.”  Christ has all but achieved His victory over sin and death through the cross and resurrection, and yet He has not brought it all to fulfillment.  We still suffer, and struggle, and feel death’s sting.  He has already been enthroned as King over the universe, and yet often feel like the throne sits empty as we look at a world full of corruption, war, disease, and famine.  We, like the covenant peoples of old, await the consummation of promises given to us.  So our Advent becomes a time to ponder and prepare for this final coming, even as we meditate upon the first coming.

And this leads to another reason why I have come to appreciate and celebrate Advent.  For a time of year that is supposed to be about reflection upon the most amazing event to ever have occurred in human history, it could not be more worse for trying to adopt such a posture.  Between shopping for presents, attending special performances, going to parties held by friends and relatives, and decorating, any time for quietness and meditation seems to fly out the window. We kick into high gear the day after Thanksgiving and speed through the weeks of December, only to come to a screeching halt at about December 26th.  If we’re lucky, we may get some moments during Christmas Eve to reflect upon the Christmas story, but that doesn’t always happen either.  Then we find ourselves the day after, in a food-induced haze and post-Christmas depression, wondering where the time went.

I appreciate Advent because it forces the season upon you, especially if it is something your church observes in the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. If nothing else, this time on one day a week causes you to begin to think about the momentousness of what happened in Judea 2000 years ago, and it leads you once again through the story.  Perhaps it even leads you during the week to stop and take moments here and there, between the shopping and the Christmas concert, to remember what it’s all about.  And thinking of what it’s about deserves more than than just one day out of the year.  The Incarnation is too much to grasp in just a few hours on December 25th, much less four weeks of the year.  But at least Advent is a start.

Another wonderful thing I have come to appreciate about Advent is the sense that I am participating in something that other Christians all across the world are celebrating, and have celebrated down through the years.  It’s a reminder that I am part of something bigger than myself, that salvation and redemption are not just about me.  Sometimes we like to say that, if we had been the only person on earth, Jesus would have come and died for us anyway.  But the fact is we’re not, and He didn’t.  We are part of a new family, a new community, a new holy nation, even a new creation, that spans time and space.  And whatever divisions we have, at Advent we all say “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!  Let your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The carols we sing are the artistic endeavors of past brothers and sisters in Christ who have attempted in some small way to grasp the beauty of God made flesh.  The prayers we pray have been uttered on the lips of countless fellow believers, in many Advent seasons, shaped differently by time and place, but united by spirit.  During Advent, we are one in our longing for the Savior.

During this season, if you have never celebrated Advent, I hope that you will begin to take small steps toward that quiet place where the weight of the mystery starts to fall upon you.  Maybe take a break from the party, and step outside to look up at the stars.  Jesus, who made them, was born under them that night in Bethlehem.  Put in a nice Christmas album (not “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town”), light a few candles, turn of the lights, and think about the One who penetrated the darkness of this world with the light of His appearing.  Go to your church’s Advent services if they have any, and if not, maybe celebrate Advent together with your friends and family. Invite people over, and sing some songs.  Read the prophecies of old, speaking of the Root of Jesse, the Child born unto us, and the Morning Star.  Read the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story, and think about people like Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Joseph, and Mary.  Think of how God invaded their lives, and how He has invaded your life as well.  Let your soul be satisfied with the grace of the True Gift, and you will come out the other end of the Christmas season with something more lasting than anything you get under the tree this year.

(Posted by Chris)


~ by thebardling on November 29, 2010.

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