When we were young our Mom brought home a peculiar Advent Calendar that had a picture of a creepy lion and some dude with horse legs. To add to the strangeness, Mom made us Turkish delight. I can’t speak for my sister, but I’ll admit that the whole thing was odd. Yes, Advent Calendars are a fun way to count down to Christmas, which is obviously the most important day in the life of a child. The Turkish delight, with its slimy texture and raw flesh color, sure was… something. I ate it, though I’m still not sure why.
My first introduction to the concept of Advent was pretty awkward. I definitely didn’t get the whole connection to Narnia. Now I get it, and I can say that Mom was brilliant.
My early days of ministry had very little Advent-y stuff. Then I read a book by Robert Webber called Ancient-Future Time. Since then, I’ve been slowly coming to a fuller understanding of what it means — spiritually — to enter into Advent Spirituality. It’s more than counting the days until Christmas. For our culture, Christmastime is busy with online shopping and human stampedes at the mall. Our kids are eagerly expecting the Christmas Tree to suddenly show up in our living room, and they’ll make sure there’s plenty of under-tree space for what will surely be massive presents. Even in church world, we’re thinking and planning for the next few Sundays AND the extra-vital Christmas Eve service(s). “Don’t blow it… don’t catch your sleeve on fire… don’t accidentally say ‘He is Risen!'” These are just some snippets of the internal dialogue of your Pastor on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile the congregation beautifully sings another verse of Silent Night. It really is majestic.
Christmas Eve/Day is a marvelous celebration of the birth of Christ! How does one prepare for such a big day? What are the spiritual implications in our own souls and in culture? Left to our own devices, we anticipate and build up toward Christmas with great attention to all that Christmas-y stuff, which is okay unless it shadows the mystery of God coming to earth as one of us.
Mystery requires a different kind of attention. Unless we’re careful, we’ll miss the chance to be shaped by a very important part of our salvation story. After all, Jesus is God’s son born to die. One can’t have a resurrection without a funeral. Ya can’t have a funeral without a life, and you don’t have life without a birth. Christmas is only half the story. Really it’s Christmas + Easter + Christ’s Return that make up our central story. My little story fits into the big story of God’s salvation, a mysterious saga which makes its humble arrival at Christmas.
One doesn’t just slide into Christmas, especially with the annual holiday frenzy of our world. What will rescue us from autopilot? What reduces the risk of missing the spiritual mystery? What might churn our soul and bring renewal — not burnout — at Christmas?
Behold: the season of Advent. Advent gets our hearts and minds focused on what it means to hope for the Messiah, just as our Hebrew ancestors hoped. At the same time, Advent marks what we are doing right now as we wait for Messiah’s return. To put it differently: Advent shows us where we are on the timeline of unfolding the Kingdom of God. These four weeks leading up to Christmas remind us of all the stuff Jesus said about coming back to earth after the crucifixion. Christmas is the first Incarnation. When He returns, it will be a different kind of incarnation. The King of Kings will come, victorious, on the throne, reigning over a new everything. Jesus continually refers to His second coming, saying “be ready” and “watch” and “pay attention!”
And that, dear friends, is what makes Advent so awkward. Just like the strange calendar and the bizarrely scrumptious Turkish delight of my childhood, this Sunday will probably be shocking for some people. Why? Because it’s not technically Christmas yet. I’m not going to go all scrooge and crush any Christmas joy. I promise not to protest any Christmas songs, even though they are technically out of place. The main song leading up to Christmas isn’t Joy to the World or Angels We Have Heard On High, excellent as those songs are. The song of Advent is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. If Christmas is in a happy/major key, Advent is in a somber/minor key. We’re considering. We’re repenting. We’re coming to grips with the stagnant water in our souls.
Advent isn’t as much about tinsel as it is about taking time to reflect. The gifts we’re buying are no match for the gift of grace we have through Christ. Listen, I love cookies and pie and Christmas dinner as much as anybody, but the meal we’re truly nourished by is Communion. We are preparing a place for Jesus in our hearts… our homes… our communities… and our world. That kind of arrival takes genuine intention and preparation.
And then — FINALLY — we will get to Christmas Day. Until then, we prepare. We think about our need for mercy and grace, consider the commands and directives of Messiah, and anticipate His return with great hope. December 25th becomes an even greater celebration because we’ve waited on purpose and realized our need. Finally… He’s here! And how much greater it will be when we can say that again, in real time, when Jesus returns.
Advent feels awkward because it goes against the cultural grain of everything around us as we count down to the big day. Feeling out of sync is part of what makes Advent an effective season. Anticipation is a powerful discipline. Join me in feeling the ache of darkness and sin, the hurt and brokenness. Join me in praying for His Kingdom come and His will to be done. Join me in hope. Join me in seeing Christmas with new eyes.
Merry Christmas? Not yet. Happy Advent!