For the longest time, I thought “Advent” was just a fancy word for “the Christmas season,” a holier, maybe more spiritual-sounding word for an otherwise hectic and overly-commercialized holiday stretch between Thanksgiving and December 25. What I’ve discovered in the past few years of observing Advent is that it’s not just a different word; it’s an entirely different approach.
Let me explain. Advent as a season is meant to make the journey toward Christmas full of meaning; it’s meant to put us touch with our deepest longings and greatest hopes; it’s meant to teach us to bring all our desires together on one object: Christ. While “Christmas” as a season (properly) begins on December 25 and goes twelve days (yes, there’s a song about that!) until January 6th, Advent is all about the build-up to it. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and takes us right up to the glorious celebration of the incarnation.
When you journey through Advent to Christmas, you begin to see Jesus more fully. You recognize that His incarnation was the beginning of the redemption of the world and that His return is the completion of it. Advent pulls those two moments together. It overlays the joy of His arrival as a helpless babe with the hope of His appearing as conquering King. Both arrivals are anticipated in celebrating Advent.
But changing an approach to “the holidays” is a daunting task. So here are three simple suggestions for how to make the switch from simply “celebrating the holidays” to journeying through Advent and on to Christmas.
1. Focus on the Longing. It has been said that at the bottom of human personality is the fundamental question of what a person is living for. What do we set our hopes on? What, in an ultimate sense, are we waiting for? Advent puts us in touch with the pain in our lives. It helps us to give voice to the ache in our souls, the cry within us that says, “This is not right!” Many people find themselves hurting around “the holidays” because the pain of losing a loved one or the ache of loneliness is more pronounced. But a secularized “holiday season” does little to heal those aches because it cannot direct it toward a hope. But Advent tells us that the deep longing, the ache we have for the world to be set right, for pain to be fully healed, for death to be defeated must be given voice. More than that: it must be given an Object. Advent reminds us that the hope of the whole aching, broken world is Jesus Christ.
So, instead of avoiding the pain or the ache in your soul, let it point you toward Christ. Pray, as the saints do at the end of the Book of Revelation, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus!” Children know the feeling of waiting for Christmas to open the present that is under the tree. So in a similar way, followers of Jesus can let Advent teach us to wait longingly for the day when all that God has “purchased” for us in Christ arrives in its fullness, when our inheritance– of which we now have a “downpayment”– is fully received.
2. Find a New Rhythm. How can you set your heart to long for Christ during Advent? A big part of the answer is in finding new rhythms. There are many to choose from, but here are a few thoughts.
Reading. I like to read 1 or 2 books that will help focus my heart on Christ and His coming. This year, I’m reading N. T. Wright’s “How God Became King”; last year, I read N. T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus” (Seeing a pattern?). I will also read a work of fiction that awakens my heart to new worlds. Last Advent, I read Dicken’s classic, “A Christmas Carol.” This year, I’m reading Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”
Praying. Another rhythm that can help is to use a prayerbook– especially if you don’t normally use one. I have listed some prayers and a link to my favorite prayerbooks on my previous post on Advent resources. An Advent devotional can be helpful as well. Richard Rohr’s comes highly recommended, as does this collection of writings that Holly got me a few years ago.
Simplifying. One of the things my wife does for our family is elimate things from our schedule during Advent! Rather than cluttering up the calendar, she cancels stuff! This year, she’s cancelled (or suspended) several of our kids’ extra activities. (For every activity or group you’re in, there will likely be a “Christmas party” to attend!) The way she says it is, it’s about simplifying life to make space to reflect and thoughtfully experience the season. Advent ought to be a gift of fresh Spirit-oxygen, not a busy, frenetic, string of shopping trips and meaningless parties.
But maybe you’re the type of person who never gets together with others. Perhaps for you, Advent should be a time of feasting with friends, of living the richness of life that Christ comes to bring. Whatever your new rhythm is, just remember that the new “rhythm” should help focus your heart on longing for Christ…and, if you think long enough about what you’re longing for– Christ’s return!–it should also call you to repentance. (Not exactly the stuff holiday songs on the radio are made of, I know.)
3. Don’t Get Fussy About It. As I often say about any of the historic spiritual traditions and practices, the practice is not the point; the liturgy is not the point; JESUS is the point. The truth is, we all have practices and traditions and a liturgy. The question, of course, is whethere those practice actually help center us on Christ or get in the way of Christ. Sadly, much of what is done in the “Christmas season” in many of today’s churches is just an echo of culture’s secularized “holiday season.” It’s gleefully consumeristic, full of references to “iconic” holiday movies, and cluttered with parties and activities. Not many in our churches are calling us to live more reflectively, more attentively to Christ, through this season. A recovery of the practice of Advent can help.
And yet…there is no reason to get Phariseeical (Scrooge-like?) about all this. Following Advent more “strictly” doesn’t make you a better Christian– especially if the “strictness” has become the point. Some people point out that according to Advent tradition, technically no Christmas Carols should be played until the Christmas Eve service…and that all rejoicing should be postponed til the true Twelve Days of Christmas. Personally, I’ve got Christmas music going– and it’s not all carols! (I love Harry Connick’s stuff!) The point isn’t take all the fun out of it or to be sad and morose. (If you say, “Merry Christmas”, I won’t say, “Bah, humbug!” or “Not yet!”) There’s no need to get fussy about the “do’s and don’t’s.” The question is simply this:
How can you teach your heart to long for Jesus, to wait patiently– through joy and sorrow– for His saving rule to come in fullness?
That is what Advent is all about.
What about you? What are some practices and habits that have made the season of Advent much more than a synonym for “the Christmas season”?
Here’s another blog on some resources for Advent and the Church Calendar.