By Marv Knox
We need Advent particularly badly this year, and not simply because it’s a prelude to Christmas.
Advent marks the beginning of the church year and starts four Sundays before Christmas. Advent takes its name from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” Advent is the season of waiting for and anticipating the coming of Jesus — God in the flesh — whose birthday, Christmas, ends Advent.
The four Sundays of Advent represent the eternal themes of the season — hope, love, joy and peace. Some Christians also consider each Sunday as representing the prophets, Bethlehem, shepherds and angels, or possibly prophets, John the Baptist, Mary and the magi.
Many churches recognize the Sundays of Advent by lighting candles on a wreath, with each of the four candles representing a theme of the season. Usually, the candles for the first (hope), second (love) and fourth (peace) Sundays are purple, and the third-Sunday candle (joy) is pink or rose. On Christmas Eve, worshippers light the white Christ candle in the center of the wreath.
Our family began observing Advent 30 years ago, when my wife, Joanna, and I lived in Kentucky, where I attended seminary. The solemn, reverential, expectant nature of waiting for Jesus’ arrival captivated our hearts and enthused our imaginations. Our eventual celebration of the arrival of the Christ child meant far more to us because we spent about a month thinking about the needs of a hurting world and how they could be transformed by the arrival – advent — of God in human flesh.
Jo and I bought a plaster advent “wreath” and commemorated Advent at bedtime throughout the years our daughters were growing up. Lindsay and Molly still would tell you those Advent evenings around the wreath — lighting candles, reading stories, saying prayers and singing carols (some purists would say we should have held off on carols until Christmas Eve) — comprise one of their best childhood memories.
Some Protestants oppose observing Advent because it sounds “too Catholic.” I see where they get it, what with candles, colors, rituals, metaphor and all. But this misses the point, and it denies worshippers the opportunity to experience rich, fervent spiritual evidence of God’s active, redemptive presence in the world.
Ironically, some of the Christians who complain the loudest about the commercialization of Christmas and the secularization of the season miss out on an excellent opportunity to counter those forces when they decline to observe Advent.
That points to the reason we need Advent so desperately this year. It’s counter-cultural. Sure, pushing against commercialism and secularism is part of it. But those concepts, while obvious, are sidelights compared to the primary issue.
Advent tells us to wait. It reminds us we’re not in control; God is. Advent provides a structure for remembering that the world waited in lonely cosmic exile until the Messiah, Jesus, arrived to redeem us from our sins and the morass of our own making. And Advent suggests what was true 2,000 years ago remains true today. We do not set the agenda for our lives; God does.
We live in a society that hates to wait. That’s because we inherently believe we — individually, each of us — are most important. We want to microwave our lives so what we desire happens immediately. We want gratification now. This is a symptom of deep-set selfishness as old as Adam and Eve and as current as Washington gridlock, the latest financial scandal and the newest petulant media or sports superstar.
The one issue Americans seem to agree on is that our society is in decline. The skids have been greased by selfishness. The demand to get what I want and to get it now is but a symptom of epidemic egotism that refuses to consider the common good. So we need to be reminded we are not the center of the universe; God is. Waiting is a good discipline for learning that lesson.
Take a deep breath. Light an Advent candle. And wait.