Isaiah 11: 1-10; Ps 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Some 10 days ago someone asked me “Why don’t we have flowers in Church during Advent?” I gave an answer but it raised other issues, and it set me thinking.
What is Advent, and what do we know about it?
Advent is so much more than a delicious chocolate calendar counting down the days until Christmas. In fact, the Advent calendar gives a wrong idea about Advent, as it assumes that Advent starts on the 1st December, when we all know that this year it started last Sunday on 27th November, and next year it will start on the 3rd December. I therefore decided to speak this morning about Advent and I make no apology for using some of an article by Justin Holcomb which I found on Christianity.com.
For some of us there may be some confusion surrounding the meaning of the Advent season. The word “Advent” just means “coming”. So it is reasonable to assume that the Advent season focuses on expectation and to think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is part of the story, but as Anne explained last Sunday there’s more to Advent than just that.
We should also understand that Christmas, the “Christ Mass”, was not celebrated until 350 to 400 AD. Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries in Spain and Gaul, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. During this season of preparation, Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for their baptism; in a similar way that some new Christians today use Lent as a time of preparation for their baptism at Easter.
So originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas. By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds in Glory as the judge of the world. So Advent was a season that focused on waiting.
It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was also explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.
Advent is now the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and each Sunday is commemorated by the lighting of one of four coloured candles in the Advent wreath, with a fifth white candle being lit on Christmas day. Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days”, that we read about in Acts and Hebrews: as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom.
The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration, while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people.
In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season. While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.
But the world we live in seems to take an Advent-free leap straight from All Saints Day to Christmas Eve? WHY?
Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be a time to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting is considered a waste of time in a materialistic world.
In the Western religious setting, new believers seek to use Jesus to provide them with their most convenient lives in the here and now, and Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion.
Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.
Even on this side of Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no shopping trolley full of Christmas bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of Christmas pudding and brandy butter can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch.
As the apostle Paul declared, “The whole of creation, has been groaning together for redemption.” In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the failings of the present moment but as an expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now.
In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.
Advent was intended to be a season much like Lent, a time of fasting, and reflection and there are a variety of ways that this time of mourning works itself out in the season. That is the reason that traditionally we have no flowers in Church during Advent, and why some Churches delay their carol services until after Christmas.
Today it is difficult to keep in mind the true meaning of Advent in the midst of parties, shopping, lights and decorations that we see all around us. Some may view Advent like the season of Lent, where you can celebrate it or skip it, waiting instead for the big holidays like Christmas or Easter. I can’t help but feel, that when we skip over these waiting periods in anticipation of the real meaning of the holiday, we come up a little empty when the big day arrives.
So what should we do?
Reflection on the violence and evil in the world cause us to cry out to God to make things right -to put death’s dark shadows to flight. One catechism describes the spirituality of Advent beautifully:
“When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”
It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense.
We are between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming. It is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation.
Faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; He has come, and He will come again.
So Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting. This is the essence of Advent.
Are you listening for God speaking to you, through the Bible, or prayer or quiet meditation? Are you giving yourself space to hear what God is saying to you in this busy world?
What better time to start than this Advent?