Do you observe the season of Advent?
I grew up in a United Methodist church, which lights the candles on the Advent wreath every year; when we planted our own church in the Seventh Day Baptist denomination, my family kept that tradition. And now that my immediate family is Catholic, Advent isn’t just a part of our year, it’s the start of the Christian calendar. Advent, in this oldest tradition, is more than just four candles. It’s four weeks of preparing our hearts for the coming of the Savior anew. Of yearning for Him. Of longing for Him.
As my Patrons & Peers group celebrated Christmas together for the first time last year, discussion round about the end of November/ beginning of December touched on Advent…and the fact that at least half our members are only vaguely familiar with the tradition, since their churches don’t observe it. Which made me think that the same percentage is probably true of my general readership. So then, it sounded like fun to take some time to talk about what Advent is and why it’s become part of the Church calendar.
When Does Advent Begin?
Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Much like Lent is 40 days, a Biblical significant number meant to mimic the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, Advent used to be 40 days as well, to encompass the “fullness” of history before Christ’s appearance on the scene. In the 9th century, that time was condensed to four weeks, and the Four Sundays of Advent began to be observed as we still see them now.
In traditional services, Advent, much like Lent, is a season of repentance and somberness. Celebratory songs like the “Gloria” are taken from the liturgy. The alter and vestments are clothed in purple cloth, because purple is the traditional color of repentance and penitence. Scripture readings during these four weeks focus not on Christmas, but on the state of the world before Christ came, and on John the Baptist preparing the way for Him–because Christmas and Easter have always been so closely linked in the Church that you don’t even try to separate one from the other. Christ was born for one purpose: to save us through His death. This is why we both celebrate and mourn. We celebrate because He loves us so much.
We mourn because our own sinful natures required this sacrifice of our Lord.
What Do the Four Weeks of Advent Represent?
As we focus on the state of the world so desperate for a Savior–a state our world is always in–we look too toward how good our God is to meet us as He’s done. And we recognize that we are the world before Christ. We are sinful. We are selfish. We have wronged God. We have disappointed him. We have hurt our neighbors. We have failed to be what He made us to be. We have chosen, again and again, our own way above His. Our own hearts, certainly before we accepted the salvation offered by Him but even now in some degree, are hard and barren.
And yet He not only came down to walk among us, He prepared the very world for His arrival with such care. He came at the perfect time in history. And His coming restarted history. It created a new era, a new epoch. This is why the traditional Church calendar begins with the anticipation of Christmas.
The first week of advent, marked by purple, is the week of Hope. From the earliest writings of the Old Testament, we see the faithful servants of God hoping for His salvation, whether in the very physical realm–hope that He’ll deliver them from oppression–to the purely spiritual sense. This hope, when the world is at its darkest, is one of the most amazing marks of faith. Faith hopes when logic says we shouldn’t. Faith hopes when all seems lost. Faith hopes, knowing that even if it seems like we’ve lost, we haven’t, because there is a world beyond what we perceive. This first week of Advent, we celebrate the Hope that Christ represents to the world…hope that we need because the world is otherwise so hopeless. We recognize that without Him, we are irrevocably separated from God, but we cling to the Hope of Reconciliation that He represents. Living as we do in the 21st century, we obviously know He has come already…but it’s still so important to reflect on what that hope means, for us and for all of mankind throughout all of history.
Because at some point in our lives, He hadn’t yet come to us…or rather, we hadn’t yet turned to Him. For us, as for every Christian before us, we need to experience our own Advent of Christ, His coming into our hearts. Remembering that coming every year, remembering that hope, keeps it fresh and new and beautiful.
The second week of advent, also marked by purple, is the week of peace. In Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah, he calls Christ the “prince of peace.” In an age where power and royalty were only ever achieved through war, this would have seemed like a strange thing. A prince could only be one of peace if he was born into an established kingdom strong enough that it didn’t need to fight. David, we know, was a king of war, and Solomon of peace…and that was when God permitted the Temple to be built, by hands not stained by blood.
Christ, however, entered into a world of strife. The peace between Israel and the Greeks and Romans had been won through political maneuvering in the centuries preceding His arrival, but it had cracked and broken. Israel was occupied by Romans. Israel was restless and ready for a Savior to lead them out of bondage. Israel wanted a king like the ones of old, that would lead them from captivity by crushing their enemy.
Instead we get a Savior who comes not to offer this shaky peace to a nation, but to offer something no king ever dared to promise before–peace of the spirit. Peace of the soul. Peace not between men and kingdoms, but between each person and God. This is a peace no mortal man can offer, but what we all long for at the most primal level. Why do we war with each other? Because part of us in rebellion against God. If we were perfectly aligned with Him, all of us, then we would be at perfect peace together too. This is the kingdom of which Christ is the Prince of Peace. Not a kingdom of earth, but the Kingdom of God. And that Kingdom began the moment He was born, was anticipated for hundreds of years before His arrival, and still reigns today.
The third week of advent, marked by pink, is the week of joy. Do you have children? Do you remember how, when your abdomen grows large and you feel the baby moving around in there, you have those moments when fear and discomfort and uncertainty are forgotten, and you just marvel at the life within? Do you remember those bubbles of joy that come surging up?
This is the joy of all of creation at the coming of our Lord. Scripture tells us that all of creation yearned and groaned like a women in childbirth, ready for the coming of the Savior. We know the joy that all of heaven and earth proclaimed at His birth, but that joy didn’t start there. The joy begins in the expectation.
Because faith, the knowing that God will make a way, breeds not only peace as we trust Him, but joy in the knowing.
We know that God yearns for us as we yearn for Him. We know that He has made a way back into His arms. We know that when we view the world through His eyes, we’ll see not just what’s broken but what He will heal.
We may still be unhappy here in this world. We may be persecuted. We may be neglected. We may be hated. We may be misunderstood. But when we truly trust in God and let His peace reign in our hearts, joy follows. A joy that we remember and anticipate anew as we draw ever nearer to the celebration of Christ’s arrival. Because He is the ultimate joy.
The fourth week of advent, marked again by purple, is the week of love. Why would God do this for us? Why would Christ leave His heavenly abode? Why would He not only become human, but become human in the most helpless of ways, coming as a newborn baby? He could have been formed like Adam, full grown. But instead, He put Himself in the arms of a human woman. He entrusted His life to the protection of a human man. He became fully part of the human family.
Because He loves us. He loves us so much that He agreed to let His divine radiance be swaddled in eight pounds of human flesh and blood and bone. He loves us so much that He set aside immortality so that He could die for us. Save us. Love us in the fullest of ways, by giving Himself totally for us. And that started not when He died, but when He first let His being be planted in His mother’s womb. He started, as we all do, as mere cells. A God more vast than the universe, shrunken down to such a size! Only love would inspire that. The most perfect love.
What About Advent Wreaths?
The traditional Advent wreath has four candles in it, which mirror the liturgical colors of each week: purple, purple, pink, and purple. Sometimes a white candle will be situated in the middle and lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, which is called the Christ candle.
In addition to hope, peace, joy, and love, each candle has an additional reminder. The week of hope, we call it the Prophecy Candle, because those prophecies are what assure us that we have hope of One to come. The week of peace, we call it the Bethlehem candle, to remember the small hamlet in which Christ chose to be born–not a capital won by war, but a tiny little town about family, not royalty. The week of joy, we call it the Shepherd’s Candle to recall not only the shepherds there to receive that blessed news of His coming, but how He is our shepherd, just as Moses was shepherd for Israel so long ago too, as David was, as so many others were. The fourth candle is then the Angel Candle, because they are the messengers who proclaimed Him every step of the way, from conception to His triumphant birth, from ministering in the garden to proclaiming His resurrection.
In a world that begins celebrating Christmas so early, moderns might wonder, “Why even bother with Advent? We’re already focused on Christmas!”
We are, yes. And yes, the world needs all the joy it can get. But one could argue that you can’t understand the celebration if you don’t focus on what led to it. One can’t fully appreciate the hope and peace and joy and love if one doesn’t pause to consider how much we NEED those things, even today. Only when we pause to recognize that we are still, even now, even as Christians, so desperately yearning for Him can we appreciate what His coming truly means.
I think the thing I love most about the Church calendar is that it isn’t about the past. It’s about living it out now, every year. Not just remembering what came before, but becoming a part of it.
In these next four weeks, we aren’t just resting in the knowledge that Jesus came to earth and was born in a stable. We are reliving the centuries leading up to His arrival. We are anticipating it for ourselves. We are pausing to recognize how much we still need Him. How He is our hope. He is our peace. He is our joy. He is our love.
In four weeks, we’ll set aside the sober reflections. We’ll hopefully have examined our hearts and laid them bare before God, just as His people have always needed to do when we want to draw near to Him. We should have removed what stands between us, confessed it and renounced it. We should then come, pure as that newborn, to Bethlehem’s stable. We should kneel before this Prince of Peace with the full measure of awe.
Then, my friends, we celebrate Christmas. Then we sing that “Gloria” again, just as the angels sang it to the shepherds. Then we’re ready for the Christmas season, which begins when He was born and stretches out long past when the world tucks it all into boxes again and moves on.
We’re still celebrating. Because Christ’s coming is one to be anticipated. And it’s one to then be upheld with every joyful celebration we can dream up.