For many folks in my neck of the woods, the end of Thanksgiving marks the beginning of Christmastime. We put up our decorations, start on our shopping (unless you’re a procrastinator like me), and try our best to avoid having to hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.”
On the other hand, for the millions of Christians who follow the church’s liturgical calendar, Christmastide does not truly begin until December 25! Until then, we currently find ourselves in the season of Advent — the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
The word “advent” is derived from the Latin term for “coming” or “arrival,” and this season has been thus named because it is a time when the church historically devotes its attention to the future coming of the Lord Jesus in glory, and the ushering in of the new age according to his promises.
This means that, while it’s common to view Advent as looking forward to celebrating Christ’s incarnation at Christmas, this season is really more about expecting his second advent in the future. We do recall God’s faithfulness in sending Christ into the world all those years ago in Bethlehem, and in that sense there is some overlap. But we look back only to remind ourselves that the same God who kept his word back then will keep his promise to return to this world to finish setting up his Kingdom here. To bring an end to evil, strife, and death, and to usher in his perfect justice and peace.
This eschatological focus is reflected in the Anglican lectionary (our daily Scripture readings), which has us going through the book of Revelation, as well as the portions of the Prophets that talk about the great Day of the Lord — the day of judgment.
In other words, Advent is a time of recalling the past faithfulness of God in order to kindle greater faith and hope in his promises for the future. It is a special time of worship to the God who keeps covenant with his people.
And it is also, by that same token, a time of repentance as we prepare ourselves to stand before our Lord in judgment to give an account to him of our deeds (2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 4:13).
This is why Advent is traditionally a season when many Christians may engage in fasting or abstinence from things like sweets, alcohol, large meals, or even social media or other earthly pleasures and luxuries. Rather than being a time of excess, Advent is meant to be a time of scaling back in order to make space for self-examination or for greater acts of generosity. Much like the season of Lent before Easter, Advent can help believers more fully appreciate the feast of Christmas.
When my wife and I formally observed Advent for the first time together last year, we noticed it made a massive difference in our enjoyment of Christmas. Whereas other people tended to be already partied out before the 25th of December rolled around, we were just winding up! And the discipline of cutting back and spending more time praying together as a family made the season special in an entirely different way.
Like many other believers around the world, we made use of an Advent candle wreath like the one pictured below. In the evenings, we would gather as a family around the table after dinner and light the candles — starting with just one each night for the first week, then lighting two each night in the second week, and adding another candle each week up until all five are lit on Christmas.
We would then have our family devotional, saying the Lord’s Prayer together and reading the Scripture portion for the day. We’d conclude by singing together “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — a hymn which perfectly captures the spirit of Advent with its words of longing for the arrival of Christ and his Kingdom. It’s been a great hit with our kids, who love gazing at the candle flames and singing together with us.
And so, with the church throughout the centuries, we continue to “wait for the day of God and hasten its coming” (2 Peter 3:12). This December, why not take some time to slow down and reflect on the state of your soul, knowing that one day Christ will “come again to judge both the quick and the dead”? In the spirit of Advent, let us continue to stir each other up to greater confidence in God’s promises and to deeper love for our neighbor.
Let me know in the comments below if you’re celebrating Advent this year, or if you’d like to learn more about the liturgical seasons! If you’d like to go deeper in a study of Advent, there is arguably no better resource than Fleming Rutledge’s beloved book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.
See you down the path.