Every year many American Christians complain about the corrupting busyness and materialism of Christmas. For a few decades we Americans have begun our modern “Christmas season” on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving (a modern American holiday) when shopping begins in earnest. We equate the Christmas Season with the Christmas shopping season. We’ve been corrupted by our materialistic culture. The best antidote ever found for this corruption of a holy season has been around for over 1,600 years. That antidote is to enter deeply into the season of the Christian Year that immediately precedes Christmas, the season known in the Western church as Advent.
Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus” which means “coming.” Ancient Christians knew that Christ’s redemptive work had changed everything, including the way we should mark time itself. From Christ forward, as God’s people we would mark our year independently of secular calendars. In our Christian Year we would celebrate the great redeeming acts of Jesus Christ. This would organize and guide our lives, our worship, and our discipleship. Every year the essential, foundational doctrines of our Faith would be taught to us during, and by, these seasons. Every year we would re-live the life of Jesus. Therefore, our year would begin with Advent, preparing our hearts to celebrate the Incarnation, Christ’s first coming into this world.
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, and ends on Christmas Eve. During these four Sundays and the surrounding days, the preaching, teaching, and devotions remind us of Christ’s First and Second Comings. Through God’s Word, our worship, and our meditations we remember God’s promises to Israel to come as Savior and deliver them from captivity. We also remember Christ’s promises to someday come again to deliver his people and judge the world. We prepare our hearts to properly celebrate Christ’s birth, and to meet him when he comes again. Advent is a time of remembrance, repentance, longing, and hope.
Advent is a powerful antidote to the busyness, selfishness, materialism, and greed that pollute the weeks leading up to Christmas. We take a long look back through the history of God’s people, examine our hearts, and reflect on our desperate need for God’s intervention. We repent of sin, long for Christ to come, and hope steadfastly. Finally, we rejoice with great joy at the birth of Jesus the Christ. All of this directly contradicts most of what our culture promotes in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Advent requires us to look deeply into God’s Word, in both the Old and New Testaments, and find there the glorious prophecies of all that God’s Messiah was to be and do in his First and Second Comings. Each year we cycle through a different set of Scripture passages learning how absolutely central Jesus is to all of Scripture and all of redemptive history.
Advent reminds us that we are an ancient-future pilgrim people with an ancient-future faith, stretching back through Christ into Israel, and forward through Christ into the eternal new creation. Such Advent hymns as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” join our longing with ancient Israel’s and with God’s people through the ages. Each week a new candle is lit in the Advent wreath reminding us that God’s light once came, and is coming again, into this present darkness.
Advent reminds us that however wealthy or powerful we appear to be, all of this is fleeting, and will never satisfy our souls. True life is only found in knowing as Savior and Lord this Christ who came that first time. Even then, this world in its present state is not our perfect, permanent home. Here we have no continuing city, but we look for an eternal city whose creator is God. We long for the Second Coming of Jesus, our King of Light, who shall forever banish darkness, defilement, disease, and death.
Advent reminds us that, though we are called to clearly witness to the gospel of Christ’s first coming, diligently work to better our communities, and expectantly wait for our King, on our own we can never save ourselves or our world. We long for our King who alone can forever deliver his people and his creation from bondage and injustice, and establish his everlasting kingdom of light.
Advent embeds Christmas, and us along with it, in the only proper context. Advent provides the best possible means for preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth acceptably. When you have fully experienced Advent, Christmas Eve and Morn pulse with joy as never before. Christ Jesus, the Light of the World, has come! God has kept his promise by giving his Son, and Christ shall keep his promise to come again. The risen Christ Jesus is the beginning of God’s New Creation, and what God has begun he will complete someday on the Day of the Lord. Until then, we remember the long wait of God’s People before Christ’s First Advent, and we continue to wait in patient expectation for Christ’s Second Advent, which shall surely come!
There is no better way to prepare for and to celebrate Christmas than to fully enter into the Advent Season. Doing this deepens your appreciation, your gratitude, your hope, longing, and joy year after year. It powerfully pushes back against the selfish intrusions of greed, materialism, and shortsighted impatience in ways far too numerous to mention here. It joins you to the worship and life of hundreds of millions of Christians around the world and across many cultures and two millennia. Annually celebrating Advent continually teaches you wonderful new truths about God’s redemption story.
It is tragic that some early evangelicals chose to celebrate only Easter and Christmas, and to forget the rest of the Christian Year. Tearing these two holy days out of their seasonal context and away from the holy days that immediately precede and follow them has destroyed much of their power to form us as Christians. As a result the celebration of many American Christians is shallow, rootless, ahistorical, and truncated. Christmas was cut off from the depth of Scripture and history, stripped of much of its beauty and power, defined by culture, and not truly by Christ.
We lost a richness that can only be restored by marking time “in Christ” once more. Thankfully, more and more evangelicals are relearning the power and beauty of Advent itself, and the tremendous depth it adds to the celebration of the Christmas Season that follows. Celebrating Advent and the Christian Year has powerfully impacted my family and our church. We didn’t know what we were missing when we were ignorant of Advent, but we have been immeasurably enriched since we found it. We could not imagine celebrating Christmas Season without preparing through Advent, and completing with Epiphany.
(And, yes Christmas, like Easter, is a season, not just a day! Christmas is a season of twelve days that begins on Christmas Day, and extends all the way to Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the gentile Magi to worship the Christ child, as Israel’s Messiah becomes the Light to the Gentiles, the Light of the World. Here at Epiphany God’s mission to save the nations, and our participation in that mission, are reaffirmed year after year, until Christ returns. We look away from ourselves toward a lost world, and are thrust outward in mission. That is yet another of many wonderful stories in the Christian Year.)
So, I urge you to learn more about Advent before next year’s season arrives, and celebrate the fullness of the Cycle of Light – the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and the Day of Epiphany. Stop letting non-Christian ideas and practices push you around during these holy days. Don’t let previous ignorance or this materialistic culture replace the holy, repentant Season of Advent with the “christmas” shopping season. Don’t suddenly end Christmas on December 26 by quickly tearing down your tree and returning gifts, and then be surprised that you’re blue or depressed. “It was over so fast, it’s just so empty now, like something’s missing.” D’Ya think?!??!! Finish the Christmas Season with its teaching and devotions, then celebrate Epiphany, and end with a purpose, a new beginning – taking the Light of Life to the nations!
Finally, don’t try to invent your own personal, local, or denominational ways to resist the culture’s corruption of this season. That’s just being prideful. Walk humbly through all of these seasons with Jesus and his great Church. We’re meant to remember deeply and fully together this time in the life of Christ. Make this season truly, completely His time at last.