For Christians around the world, this week is the beginning the Advent season. “What’s Advent?” a friend asked me the other day. Good question. I grew up not knowing anything about Advent.
Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” It is the season before Christmas, lasting four weeks. Its spiritual purpose is to prepare us to celebrate the coming of Christ.
Historically it was a special time of fasting, repentance and heart preparation.
Let’s back up. The Christian year begins with Advent. It is our new year, so to speak. The Christian calendar is based on a conviction that we should have a God-in-Christ centered view of time. Like Israel of old we measure time, not in Hallmark days, but by God’s work of creation and redemption. We hold to the seven day week where one day in seven is special. We believe that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the lord over time (Revelation 1.8 and 22.13). Scripture says “all things were created by him and for him” and that includes time! (Col. 1.16).
When you look at the New Testament, Jesus’ birth does not just happen in a vacuum. There is preparation before Christ’s birth. He comes in the fullness of time. God himself prepared the world for the coming of his Son. All through the Old Testament era he sent prophets, priests and kings to help us anticipate his coming. Then in the New Testament period, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph and Mary are prepared for this unique but one of a kind birth. So in a general way, Advent is a Biblical concept. God prepares the way for the birth of his son. There is a season of preparation.
After the close of the New Testament, in post apostolic times, it appears that
Easter was the main annual feast of the church. In time, Easter was preceded by a 40 day period (corresponding to Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness) called Lent, where people prepared their hearts for the drama of Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday, and where candidates prepared for their baptism on Easter.
While the birth of Christ is significant in the New Testament, early on it was not celebrated widely. Christmas began to be widely celebrated in the 4th century. Eventually it became as popular as Easter. So church leaders in the East, and later in the West, thought it spiritually helpful to precede Christmas with a Lent like season of spiritual preparation. Advent is not so much an early celebration of Christmas, (as some Christians today mistakenly believe) as it is a spiritual season of preparation for Christ’s coming. Walking through Advent purposefully can be a helpful spiritual exercise adding richness to your Christmas and to your Christian life.
Here’s why I think Evangelical Christians should take Advent seriously.
First, our Decembers and our Christmases are a mess. They are over crowded, over caloried, over indebted, and over stressed. And they are usually devoid of spiritual discipline. But Advent offers us the opportunity to, as the old carol says, “let every heart prepare him room.” It helps us become intentional about simplifying our lives, controlling the calendar, planning quiet and reflection into our month, and focusing on Christ.
Second, through the year our hearts get crowded with idols. Calvin called the human heart an “idol factory.” We keep on manufacturing new idols that take the place of God. Because of this, we need special attention to search our hearts, dethrone our idols, and re-enthrone our king. What better time to do it than at Advent?
Third, Advent gives us time to ponder the birth of Christ. Look, the incarnation is, after all, the grand miracle where God entered time and lived among us. He put his righteousness and glory on display and secured our redemption. By observing Advent, like Mary, we can take time to “ponder all these things in our hearts.”
And fourth, Advent is a great time to remind ourselves of Christ’s second coming. Advent really has three reference points. First, we look back and celebrate Christ’s first coming into the world at Bethlehem. Next we celebrate Christ’s present coming to us in this special season. If we are spiritually awake, he will come to our lives afresh each Christmas season. Finally, we celebrate Advent and look forward to his promised return. Jesus is coming again. We rarely give this thought at Christmas time. But Advent season (remember, it means coming) gives us an opportunity to look ahead with great hope.
Advent is all about being ready for the comings of Christ. Are you?
Jesus said, “you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. “ (Matthew 24.44)