“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya
In recent years, even the most non-liturgical branches of the church, those who usually recoil against anything that even smacks of ritualism, have discovered the Christian season of Advent. But typical of someone a bit late to the party, many of them seem to have missed the memo on what it actually means.
Contrary to all the Baptist and evangelical websites proclaiming that Advent is all about “getting ready for Christmas”, the season has a far richer meaning, one usually entirely overlooked by low churches.
The word itself is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” but the coming that we celebrate during Advent isn’t just Jesus’ first arrival as the babe of Bethlehem. Advent is the time to also focus on Jesus’ second coming.
Advent is a four-week season, usually beginning on the last Sunday in November and ending on Christmas Eve, where we celebrate the revelation of God in Christ, through whom all of creation might be reconciled to God. The First Advent of Christ inaugurates that reconciliation, a process in which we now participate. And the Second Advent signals its consummation, something we anticipate.
Participation and anticipation are the key practices of Advent.
PARTICIPATING IN THE FIRST ADVENT
Advent should be a season where we are invited to heighten our participation in the reconciling work of Christ in the world.
In fact, the earliest references to Advent appear in the 4th and 5th Centuries where it was seen as a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians. The feast of Epiphany on January 6 became the traditional day for baptisms, so Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for this celebration. Originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas.
Advent was a time for new Christians to embrace their faith publicly and for other Christians to repent and renew their commitment. Good luck getting Christians these days to see the lead up to Christmas as a time for fasting and penance, but we so desperately need our faith to be an alternative to the excess and commercialism of the season. Why not consider using Advent as a time of recommitment to faith?
In a Christmas sermon in 1522, Martin Luther said, “For Christ’s advent in the flesh would be useless unless it wrought in us such a spiritual advent of faith. And verily, for this reason He came in the flesh, that He might bring about such an advent in the spirit. For unto all who before or after believed in Him thus coming in the flesh, even to them He is come.”
Luther is noted for saying we should celebrate a triple Advent: we celebrate his arrival in the manger; we anticipate his coming in glory; and we experience his presence in our hearts.
ANTICIPATING THE SECOND ADVENT
As I said earlier, this is the part of Advent all us Johnny-come-lately non-liturgical Christians completely miss. As one catechism describes it:
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 Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming.
To renew their ardent desire for his second coming. Does Advent do that for you?
There was a time when evangelicals were obsessed with the second coming of Christ. This wasn’t my experience, but some of my contemporaries remember the second coming was preached every Sunday night, usually accompanied by an altar call inviting people to repent and get ready for the rapture. There were second coming conventions at which great scrolled timelines were unfurled and current events were shoe-horned into prophecies in Daniel and the Book of Revelation. Everyone was reading Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and singing Larry Norman’s I Wished We’d All Been Ready.
One of my friends remembers, as a child, she was told that when the rapture occurred a great ram’s horn would be blown and she had only seconds to repeat the phrase “Jesus is Lord” lest she be left behind. She says she used to repeat that phrase every night at bedtime, trying desperately to say it as quickly as she could in case she missed out.
Maybe it was all that religious anxiety about raptures and Russia, tribulations and end times, that turned people off. Nowadays we hardly ever hear about the return of Christ. Even Christians who claim to believe in a second coming of Jesus aren’t that interested in discussing the details, leading N.T. Wright to say, “What we have at the moment isn’t as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead,’ but a vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.”
And yet Advent was designed as an annual season for anticipating the Second Advent, a full month of renewing our ardent desire for the consummation of the current age, the future cosmic renewal of all things.
We need to trade in our vague and fuzzy optimism for the renewal of our ardent desire for Christ’s return.
As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It seems to me impossible to retain in any recognizable form our belief in the divinity of Christ and the truth of Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting the promised, and threatened, return.”
So, by all means, celebrate the season of Advent, but remember there’s so much more you can do with it than just tell people to get ready for Christmas Day. They could be using it to get ready for a Brand New Day!