As the surrounding world obsesses over the Christmas season this time of year, traditional groups of Christians have a different season, the time of Advent, which offers a calm in the center of the Christmas storm. The four Sundays of Advent are far more than a count-down to Christmas Day; they serve as a reminder of the importance of Christmas by calling attention, not just to a baby lying in a manger, but to the entire mission of Jesus who came into this world to rescue sinners and to conquer evil.
Traditional Christian congregations decorate the front of the church with white for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but on the four Sundays of Advent the decorations are blue or purple, royal colors yet deep and somber colors. Advent music is more subdued than Christmas music; “Joy to the World” will be held back until the twelve days of Christmas arrive. Meanwhile, hymns such as “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” and “Lift up your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” are sung. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Christians will celebrate the good news of great joy—the birth of a Savior who is Christ the Lord. Until that day, Advent reminds Christians that we are sinners who need a Savior, that we live in a world which needs to be rescued by the act of an Almighty God, and that the promises of that God give us hope as we wait for the culmination of all the promises he has made and has already kept in the mission of Jesus the Son of God.
“Advent” means “coming.” During Advent, traditional Christians think of three ways that Jesus comes to his people—or rather, how he has come, how he will come, and how he comes today to bless his people. The grand celebration of his arrival will take place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Until that time, we wait with patience and with hope, quietly looking forward to the great joy that we will know at the coming of our Savior.
For generations the people of God waited for the promised Messiah. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were told about the blessing for the world who would come from their family. King David was assured that one of his sons would rule an eternal kingdom. The prophets spoke and wrote of the one who was to come, giving various descriptions of what he would do to defeat evil and to bring the kingdom of God to the world. When the time had fully come, the Messiah was born. He was born in Bethlehem to fulfill the promises given to David and to Abraham. He lived and died and rose again to defeat evil and to complete all the promises made through Moses and the prophets. He defeated evil and rescued sinners. He established the kingdom of God on earth in the Bride of Christ, the Holy Christian Church.
We know that Jesus came to do the work as Messiah, and we know that his work is finished. He has kept all the promises that God made about a Savior. Yet we do not yet live in a perfect world. Though we are saints—citizens of God’s kingdom—we remain sinners living in a sinful world. The first Advent of our Savior and King promised rescue and new life, but in many ways we are still living the same old life of our forbearers. We await a future Advent, when Christ will appear in glory to make everything new. On that Day the dead will be raised and all people will stand before his throne for judgment. That judgment will not be a full trial, but only the reading of the verdict. Those who have trusted Christ will be declared worthy and welcomed into his perfect new creation. Those who have refused his blessings of forgiveness and victory will be left to the outer darkness as a result of their sins. Believers in Jesus look forward with excitement for that Day. We also use the opportunity we have in these days to share his promises that more people can be saved through his work and welcomed into his kingdom.
As we consider the past Advent of Christ and his future Advent, we remember that Advent happens in the present time as well. Jesus assured his apostles and all believers that he would be with us always, to the very ends of the earth. He said that when two or three people gather in his name, he will be in their midst. When Christians gather to hear God’s Word, Jesus is present, speaking through the writings of the prophets and apostles. When words of forgiveness are spoken in these gatherings, they are the words of Jesus, backed by his authority. In Baptism he claims citizens for his kingdom, and in a sacred meal he promises to be present to bestow forgiveness and victory on those who eat and drink, remembering him. This present, timeless, on-going Advent connects the people of God with the past Advent and the future Advent of their Savior and King.
Some groups of Christians try to have it both ways. They try to maintain the season of Advent, but they also incorporate the Christmas songs and Christmas decorations into their Advent observances. If they hear Christmas songs in the stores and on the radio, they wonder, why can’t they sing Christmas songs and hear the Christmas message throughout December in church as well? As a result, when the twelve days of Christmas arrive, people are already tired of Christmas. Without the renewing somber season of Advent in its traditional sense, they are not ready for the good news of great joy that comes with Christmas celebrations.
May you have a calm and blessed Advent in the center of the world’s Christmas storm. May you not have to sing the following parody of a traditional Advent hymn: “The Advent of our God/ Shall be our theme for prayer./ We’ll gaze at the big Christmas tree/ and wonder why it’s there.” J.