Many Christians, and some churches, allow Advent to get lost amid Christmas celebrations. Some fail to even acknowledge Advent.
Advent is preparation for Christmas, not Christmas itself. It is only in commercial advertising that the Christmas season begins the first of December (or the first of October!). In the Christian calendar, Advent is the season including the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Christmas Day is December 25, and the Christmas Season itself is the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany. Remember the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with "a partridge in a pear tree?"
Epiphany, which celebrates the coming of the Magi, the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as King, is January 6. Epiphany means "showing" or "unveiling" and thus "unveils" the truth that salvation was for Gentiles as well as Jews.
Advent differs from Christmas in the same way Lent differs from Easter. Both Advent and Lent are times of preparation—Advent for Christmas and Lent for Easter.
The Christian calendar, unlike the calendar on our walls or desks, does not begin January 1. It begins the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is that season when the Church turns its gaze in two directions—past and future. It looks backward as it prepares to celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and it looks forward as it engages in self-examination in preparation for Christ's Second Coming in glory.
The word "advent" comes from the Latin adventus, which means "coming" or "arrival." Thus in certain contexts it means the same as the Greek parousia. However, the latter term occurs in the New Testament only with reference to the Second Coming. During the Advent season, both these "comings" of Christ are embraced in the Church's worship—His coming in the Incarnation and His coming at the end of the age.
Advent emphasizes hope, and it is this hope that makes Advent a proper preparation for Christmas.
Christian prayer during Advent might be summed up in the word "Come." It is the "Come, Lord Jesus" with which the Book of Revelation ends. Some of the Advent hymns blend the joy of the Good News of Christ's nativity with the expectation of the Second Coming. The hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," expresses the Advent hope, as does Charles Wesley's hymn, "Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus." Although Christ has been present in the world all along, we pray for His presence to take on a special intensity during Advent (Matthew 28:20).
The commercialism marking this time of year would lead us to think that the main focus of the season is the buying and giving of gifts. But Advent is mainly concerned with preparing for Christ's Second Coming in the light of the hope illuminated for us by His first coming.
Advent is a season of tension and paradox. The first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, plunges us headlong into the tension between the "already" of Christ's coming in the flesh and the "not yet" of the consummation of all things in Christ at the end of the age. Interestingly, we begin the Christian year reflecting on the end of all human history.
The prophetic note is strong during the days of Advent. We pray for the destruction of all evil powers, for the triumph of God's justice, and for the dawning of God's peace over all the nations. That is the glorious prospect that was illuminated by Christ's first coming at Bethlehem where "the hopes and fears of all the years" were met on that holy night.
Thus, our worship during these weeks should joyfully focus on the Christian hope for the future.
God's advent among us is so profound that we can never fully grasp the mystery of incarnate deity. So we must continue to remember and experience anew, year after year, the reality of light in the midst of the world's darkness. At Advent we experience the fear and joy and hope that Christian worship expresses in the story of God's coming to judge the world in the form of a helpless Child lying in a manger who was to give His life to save His people from their sins.
This sheds light on our Christmas celebrations. Christmas is far richer and deeper than a mere sentimental remembrance of the birth of Jesus. Of course, we should value the tenderness of the image of the "sweet little Jesus boy, born in a manger," but Christmas means much more.
"Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!" is a reminder that the One who came to Bethlehem is indeed our Redeemer—the One into whose dying and rising we are baptized (Rom. 6:4), just as He was baptized in the Jordan and into our human condition.
As we move toward Christmas, let us not skip Advent!
Rob L. Staples is professor of theology emeritus at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
What we see as we worship may be almost as important as what we hear. Some churches use an Advent wreath as an aid to worship during the Advent season. It is a circular evergreen wreath with five candles, four around the edge of the wreath and one in the center.
Usually three candles are purple (the color of Advent), and one pink or rose-colored. The three purple candles may represent hope, peace, and love. The pink or rose candle stands for joy at the soon advent of the Savior.
On each Sunday of Advent one new candle is lighted, accompanied by appropriate Scripture reading. In the center is a white candle, called the Christ Candle, which is lighted on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or if there are no services on those days it may be lighted on the fourth Sunday of Advent, along with the pink candle.
Please note: This article was originally published in 2010. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.