Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
As early as the fourth century A.D., Christians fasted during this season and ended their fasts with celebrations either of the arrival of the wise men or of the baptism of Jesus. For many Christians today, the most familiar sign of Advent is the lighting of candles—two purple candles, followed by a pink and then another purple—on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
Advent has fallen on hard times, though. In the Protestant and free-church traditions, the loss is understandable, though no less lamentable; Baptists in particular tend to be quite suspicious of anything with origins in ancient or medieval tradition. When I instituted Advent celebrations as a pastor in a Baptist church, I was asked more times than I care to recall, “Don’t Catholics do that?”—as if that automatically prohibited us from considering such a practice.
Yet, even in congregations that more consciously echo the ancient rhythms of the church’s life, the meaning of Advent seems in danger of being misplaced. By the closing week of November, any sense of waiting has been eclipsed by the crèche in the lobby, the tannenbaum in the hall, and the list of Christmas parties in the church newsletter.
Why this loss of Advent as a distinct season of the Christian year?
Perhaps it’s because, for believers no less than non-believers, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards redeem us from waiting on a paycheck to make our purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with the awkward lull of Advent. And so, before the last unpurchased Halloween costume has made it back to the warehouse, halls and malls are decked with plastic holly and crimson ribbon. Thanksgiving provides a pre-Christmas test run on basting turkeys and tolerating relatives—but the primary function of Thanksgiving increasingly seems to be to supply a convenient time to gather for that orgy of consumption and consumer debt known as Black Friday.
Why this Advent-free leap from All Hallow’s Eve to Christmas Eve?
Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be re-construed to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.
In a religious milieu that has fixated itself on using Jesus to provide seekers with their most convenient lives here and now, Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion. Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.
Even on this side of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no cart full of Black Friday bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of pumpkin custard can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch. “The whole creation,” the apostle Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.”
In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.
I am not contending that lighting a few pink and purple candles will somehow, in and of themselves, trigger a renaissance of patience or a yearning for the presence of Christ. Neither am I suggesting that everyone should dismantle their yuletide trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But I know that I need this yearly reminder of the meaningfulness of waiting—and I do not believe that I am alone.
Left to myself, I turn too quickly from the God of the gospel and kiss the feet of the gods of efficiency and convenience—false gods that proclaim waiting a waste, a “killing of time.” Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent waiting. Advent is a proclamation of the sufficiency of Christ through the discipline of waiting.
So, this Advent season, consider how your family might celebrate the discipline of waiting. Set aside a few moments each evening to consider biblical texts that tell about the first and second comings of Jesus. Or select a book for the month—maybe a novel that guides your family to glimpse both the beauty and the brokenness of God’s creation—then turn off the television each night and take time to read to one another. Or work together to list some ways that the world is broken; then, even as you long for the return of Jesus to make the world right, recognize that God’s work in the world is already underway. God is making the world new even now through the power of the resurrection among his people; so, plan a family activity that joins in God’s redeeming work by setting something right or relieving human suffering in your neighborhood. Whatever you do, let it be a reminder that, because God has promised to make the world new and has vouchsafed this promise through an empty tomb, no moment of waiting is meaningless. Every passing instant is pregnant with wonder and beauty and glory.
When I recall that there is meaning even in times of waiting, the question that occupies my mind as I stand in line at the supermarket is not whether I’ve chosen the quickest line but how I might invest this waiting in something weightier than my own to-do list.
When I sit in traffic, I am not merely anticipating a shift of color from red to green; I am awaiting the coming of Christ, and there is meaning in this waiting.
When I walk hand-in-hand with a dawdling child who stands in awe of common robins and random twigs, there is every reason to join this child in worship, for there is holiness in her waiting.
Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting.
If you need some music to help your family to celebrate Advent, download “Advent Songs.”