What If Christians Celebrated Advent?
Many will be surprised to learn that the season of Advent is not intended to be four weeks of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The purpose of Advent is for the church to worship, prepare, hope, and wait for the Christ who is coming again.
Laurence Hull Stookey describes the meaning of Advent beautifully in his book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church:
"The first Sunday of Advent is regarded in the Western Church as the beginning of the liturgical year. But Advent is first of all about the end of time. Because the term itself means “coming” or “arrival,” and because is precedes Christmas, many have misunderstood Advent to be exclusively a time to get ready to celebrate the coming of a child at Bethlehem. In fact, the primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called “the second coming.” Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil. Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God; the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of this destruction of the powers of death, the inauguration and anticipation of what is yet to come in fullness. As such, the opening Sundays of Advent bring to sharp focus themes that in the lectionary system have been accumulating for some weeks; for as the lectionary year closes, the Gospel readings, in particular, deal with signs of the end." (page 121)
Therefore, the beginning of the liturgical calendar focuses on the end of time. It calls us to contemplate and celebrate history’s destination. It is in the promise that God wins in the end that we can live in hope and anticipation.
A cursory reading of the lectionary for the first two Sundays of Advent reveal that looking at the coming again of Christ shows us the lives we are to live now. If the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the One born in Bethlehem is a God of righteousness and justice, ought not those who claim the same One as Lord and Savior to live lives that reflect that same righteousness and justice?
For example, look at this passage for the Second Sunday of Advent:
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home (2 Peter 3:8-13, NRSV).
As the first two Sundays of Advent look forward to the future of Christ’s coming kingdom and reign, the closing two Sundays look backwards to the past; to Christ’s birth. We see in these texts that in that birth God begins the process of turning the world upside down:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on
the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all
generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done
great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made
to our ancestors,
to Abraham and
to his descendants forever.”
(Luke 1:46b-55, NRSV)
What would happen if the church celebrated Advent as preparation, waiting, and hoping for coming again of the One was born in Bethlehem? How would such an observance change the church? How would it change the people? What if Christians actually entered into a time of repentance, confession, prayer, and worship as a way of preparing themselves and their world for the coming again of Christ? How would the church and the world be changed if Christians fasted and prayed and engaged in acts of justice and compassion during the weeks of Advent as their witness to and way of preparing for Christ’s coming again? What would happen if Christians resisted the market cultures rush to Christmas and waited until December 24 to begin their celebration of Christ’s birth?