If frantic preparations for Christmas are wearing you down and sapping your holiday joy, stop for a bit, take a deep breath, and enjoy a little dose of Advent.
Centuries before businesses and families began putting up Christmas decorations in mid-October, the Church created a pre-Christmas season called Advent. Stretching three to four weeks, Advent always begins on a Sunday and always ends at sunset on December 24, Christmas Eve. The theme of Advent is not counting down the days to Christmas; Advent is time to consider why Christ came to this world. The Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah are considered, as is the work of John the Baptist. Advent hymns tend to be calm and reflective—“Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” is a well-known example. Blue or purple cloths are placed on the furniture at the front of the church. These colors represent the somber tone of the Advent season; but they are also royal colors, saluting the coming of Christ the King. Congregations that do not have Wednesday night services year-round often have special Advent services on Wednesdays as well as Sundays.
A relatively recent tradition for the season of Advent is the Advent Wreath. It takes several forms, but it is always a circular candelabra parallel to the floor rather than vertical, often decorated with evergreen branches, holding either four or five candles. If there is a fifth candle, it stands in the center of the circle; the other four are arranged equidistantly at the edge of the circle. The central candle is always white; the outer candles are either blue or purple, except that sometimes one of the four is pink. An Advent wreath can be used in the home or in the church. The first Sunday of Advent, and all the days of that week when people are present, one outer candle is lit. The second Sunday of Advent, and the days following, two outer candles are lit. The third Sunday of Advent advances to three candles; if a pink candle is used, it is lit this week. The fourth Sunday of Advent, and the remaining days until Christmas Eve, all four outer candles are lit. The night of Christmas Eve, the four outer candles and the white candle in the center of the wreath all are lit; after the service, the wreath is put away until Advent returns. (Some churches put replace the blue or purple or pink candles with white candles and continue to light the wreath during the twelve days of Christmas.) Various writers have proposed names or themes for the candles, but no single version has been widely accepted.
Some Christians speak of the Lord’s three Advents. Old Testament believers waited for the promised Messiah to come; their waiting was rewarded with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, his first Advent. New Testament believers await the glorious appearing of Jesus on the Day of the Lord, the last day of history as we know it. This is often called the Second Coming or Second Advent of Christ, although the Greek word “Parousia” describes an appearing rather than an arrival; Christ is present today, but unseen. His presence constitutes the Third Advent. When Christians gather in his name, Christ is with them. When forgiveness is announced, Christ is present to grant his forgiveness. He is present in Baptism, and whenever a Christian remembers his or her Baptism, Christ is there to bestow forgiveness. He is present in a special way in the Lord’s Supper, also granting forgiveness and eternal life.
There are two overlapping Christmas holidays that overlap. The world’s Christmas of buying and selling, cooking and cleaning and decorating, singing about Rudolf and Frosty and Santa Claus, comes to an end on December 25, Christmas Day. On that same day the Christian Church begins the twelve days of Christmas, celebrating not just the birth of Jesus but also his Incarnation, the fact that he became human to rescue and redeem sinners. If Christmas were merely the birthday of a notable historical figure, it would not be worth all this attention. But the victory of Good Friday and Easter—the Lord who vanquished death and is risen to prove his victory—gives greater meaning to the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
Yes, we need a little Advent, right this very moment. May we find tidings of comfort and joy in the Advent of our God. J.