The What and Why of Advent?
Advent means ‘coming’. The season of Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is the beginning of the church calendar, and as such, it is the season that is traditionally set aside to celebrate and remember the anticipation inherent in the way that God is telling the story of history. In the Old Covenant, they were always anticipating the first advent of the Messiah.
From the first promise of the Gospel, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel” (Gen. 3:15), to the last promise of the Old Covenant, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5–6), the people of God were looking forward to God acting. They looked forward to God rescuing them from the mess that they had gotten themselves into. God was gracious, had always been gracious, and they looked forward to the day that God would fulfill his promise to be gracious to them.
And in the same way that their sin had caused the whole earth to groan under the weight and pressure of sin, the coming (or advent) of the Messiah was seen as freedom for the whole world, with all creation, and all of humanity being brought into the freedom from the slavery of sin and the death that follows on sins heels.
“1Arise, shine; for thy light is come, And the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. 2For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And gross darkness the people: But the Lord shall arise upon thee, And his glory shall be seen upon thee. 3And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, And kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60:1–3).
“22For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, Shall remain before me, saith the Lord, So shall your seed and your name remain. 23And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, And from one sabbath to another, Shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:22–23).
“But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24).
“3And he shall judge among many people, And rebuke strong nations afar off; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks: Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Micah 4:3).
So we set aside a season to celebrate the anticipation that was inherent in the Old Covenant, as well as the anticipation inherent in the New Covenant while we wait for the return of Christ and the resurrection from the dead. The anticipation has been celebrated in many ways, with Advent being used as a time of penitence, a time of preparation, a time of reflection, but it has always been a time of purposely subdued festivities. It is a time to slow down and remember that there were 4000 years of Old Covenant in which Jesus was promised, but had not yet come. This is meant to bring about humility and gratefulness so that we are prepared for the all out celebration of Christmas (which is a 12 day festival on the church calendar).
We live in a culture of hurry. We do not even have the patience to wait until after thanksgiving to put the Christmas lights out. By the time thanksgiving arrives, our culture has already moved onto the next thing. Thanksgiving is a thing of the past before it has even happened.
When Christmas finally rolls in we are celebrated out. If anyone were to seriously suggest a 12 day festival the tar would be heated and the turkey feathers gathered. Any glutton for such punishment would be shouted down with accusations of cruelty.
The arts of anticipation and subjugation have been completely lost. The ability to patiently pace ourselves has fallen by the wayside. We live our lives like a train going 198 miles an hour on a straight track. When a turn in the track comes into view, we speed up if we can. We try and live everyday to its absolute fullest, never taking into account the changing of the seasons or the passing of the year.
Wisdom, though, is skill in living in the world God made. We have the freedom to set our own calendar (Col. 2:16), but we should learn wisdom from those that ruled the calendar before us (Gen. 1:14-16). If we lived in a world that never changed, then living every day the same would make sense. But gave us a world in motion. A world of cycles within cycles. Every year the world gets cold and wet and then is born again in the spring, grows up in the summer, and then grows old in the fall, drops its fruit almost all at once and then dies again. The stars turn in their courses and the planets turn in different courses and a different rates. There are large cycles of 700 years as the average temperatures slowly shift and change. The winds and tides and the currents of the oceans shift and change in calendrical cycles. And godliness means living consistently well in this world of regular change.
And the church has responded with the creation of liturgical seasons. Advent is a wonderful bit of the inherited wisdom of the church. In Advent we celebrate God the storyteller. We celebrate the anticipation inherent in God’s story by partaking in it. Advent generally involves a countdown of days until Christmas (with the recent invention of the advent Calendar as a helpful tool) as well as a purposeful attempt to build anticipation for the celebration of Christmas and the final advent of Christ at the second coming.
Sometimes we enact the anticipation through emptying the house of decorations and then slowly filling it up with the new sights and smells of Christmas decorations. Or through small gifts and treats that are reminders that we are getting ready for a big celebration. But the fun of advent is the anticipation. So put some thought into how your family can celebrate the anticipation that God has built into His story.