Advent is the season of preparation that leads up to the season of Christmas and is the beginning of the church calendar. “Advent” comes from the Latin word that means “coming.” It is far more than a count-down to Christmas.
The idea of Advent is a season of repentance and preparation for the coming of Christ—first and second comings. Thus, it reminds us of the need for the incarnation since we are dead in our sins without the intervention and substitution of a Savior. And it reminds us that the Christ is coming again to earth to make everything new and we need to prepare our hearts and be watchful. These weeks of preparation are intended to be a solemn time which reach their culmination in the celebration of Christmas Day and the twelve days that follow leading to Epiphany and the recognition that Christ has come as a light to the nations.
Imagine the difference this type of celebration makes. Instead of endless gatherings, fighting traffic at the mall, retrieving the daily stacks of catalogs from the mail, and the family pressures and stress, these four Sundays and the weeks in between are intended as a quiet and reflective time to examine your heart, make peace with God and your neighbor, seek reconciliation and repentance for sin, and make room for Christ.
Instead of the emotional dip that starts on Christmas afternoon with the garbage bags of used wrapping paper, the leftovers from dinner, the football game on the tv and the disappointment that hits as you go back to work and then receive the credit card bills, Christmas Day actually marks the beginning of a season of gift-giving, of sharing with the poor and hungry, of taking time to rejoice in our great salvation. And the arc of the celebration ends with Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men, and the gift of Christ to the gentiles as the Light of the world.
Without the opportunity to recognize Epiphany and the days after Christmas, we wind up truncating the biblical advent narrative to fit in a single day and thus erroneously show the Magi at the manger. We also tend to neglect the role of Herod and Satan’s attempt to destroy Jesus in the massacre of the innocents and the biblical significance and imagery of the flight to Egypt.
For this is the point of Advent and the Church Calendar—it tells the story of Christ. By walking through the prophetic anticipation of the coming Messiah, the Incarnation, the light to the nations, the ministry of Christ, the repentance of Lent, the elements of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Resurrection, the ascension to the place of all authority, and the coming of the Spirit as the beginning of the Church, the Gospel can be woven into our lives on an annual basis just as the structure of the worship service weaves the Gospel on a weekly basis.
It makes sure that we are confronted with times of reflection and repentance—because we too often don’t make time for reflection on our own. It allows us to celebrate those things worthy of praise—because we too often celebrate and share our excitement over things which are vain and passing away.
It is possible to use the Church Calendar simply as a backdrop of the Gospel during the cycle of the year without losing the systematic teaching of the Word, binding people’s consciences, or trying to declare days as holy. We are made to celebrate and commemorate which is one reason why God established certain feasts and festivals for the children of Israel—to give opportunities to celebrate and remember God and His faithfulness. Whether birthdays, anniversaries, the Super Bowl, Memorial Day, etc., as image bearers of God we gather to feast and fellowship. How much more rich an opportunity would it be to gather as community and intentionally celebrate and remember the Ascension of our Lord who has all enemies under His feet, or the assurance of the gift of the covenant extending beyond the border of Israel in the recognition of Epiphany—the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies?
Advent enables us to carefully prepare room for the coming of Christ, to acknowledge our own sin and need of a Savior, and to rejoice with the angels at the surprising and joyous Incarnation—our God with us.