I began my pastoral career several decades ago, paying little attention toward the season of Advent. It seems I needed to discover for myself that Advent is a special season anticipating the arrival of the Lord Jesus. So now, for the past many years, I have thoroughly embraced the season. I will tell you why Advent is of such significance to me.
I found in Advent a solution to the problem of secular Christmas vs. spiritual Christmas. Well, really, I did not find it because it was always there, recognized and celebrated by the Church for two thousand years. Christians recognize that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is a holiday focusing on the meaning of the Incarnation. Yet, given the secular traditions of Christmas, we spend much of our time preparing, not for a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but for fulfilling the demands of the holidays.
We buy lots of presents for lots of people and make sure they are all wrapped and delivered. We attend and host holiday parties. We have relatives who come to visit, and/or we are the relatives who go elsewhere to visit. Christmas cards need to get out, and the annual Christmas letter often turns into a project for next year. Our holiday season requires lots of planning and energy, and it can end up being downright exhausting. If we have younger children, we may very well spend hours trying to assemble gifts on Christmas Day that come with sketchy instructions which need to be read over more than once.
Christ can, ironically, get pushed out of Christmas, not by unchurched non-Christians, but by Christians themselves. It is Advent which helps us come back to God and put our focus and our delight where it rightly belongs in Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Embedded within the season of Advent are a message and a mission. The Gospel of John begins with the great proclamation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God entered human history in the person of Jesus. It is a message of grace and hope, completely centering around Christ. It is a story – the greatest ever told – of God loving humanity so much as to become one of them. This redemption narrative gives shape to our own witness. We simply observe and tell the story of God’s love to humanity through the sending of the Son, Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell and bringing us into a kingdom full of grace, joy, wholeness, and love.
So, how, then, do we keep our focus where it needs to be during the month of December and observe the Advent season? We might (virtually) attend Advent services. In our observance, we can pay attention to the Advent Wreath and candles, the special readings, and all the heightened awareness of Christ’s coming.
Another way to focus on Jesus is by enjoying Advent music. This sounds easy, yet not so much. There are hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping centers. There are comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God.
Other ideas for Advent may include putting together an Advent Wreath at home and/or using a Nativity scene with lots of pieces as an Advent Calendar, adding one character to the scene every day.
A practical way, in years past, I discovered in remembering Advent is standing in the long lines of stores during the holidays. I realize this year will likely not have this experience. We are more likely to have a long wait on the phone – much longer than a physical line in a store. A few years back I was going nuts waiting in a crazy long line with a cashier who was clearly seasonal help. As my frustration mounted, God did what God often does with me, and asked a question.
“Tim, why are you so upset?” “Duh, God! This stupid line and slow cashier!” “Tim, what is my Advent really all about?” Busted. As a Pastor, I tell others about the time of waiting and anticipation, but here I was selfishly impatient.
Go ahead and try it out this season. Let the inevitable times of waiting on a customer service person, or even a family member, be a reminder that Advent is about patiently anticipating the coming of the Lord Jesus.
Honestly, we already know we are going to have times of waiting, whether we like it, or not. If by God’s grace we avoid some long wait, we will probably end up in holiday traffic moving at a snail’s pace. But you and I have a choice. Either the wait will form us for naught or for good. So, let us allow the time of waiting to bring a fresh Advent spirit into our lives this season so that our Christmas will be a glorious one.