Since Black Friday, many stores have dressed themselves up with snowflakes, bright lights, and Christmas decorations. With real and artificial fir trees loaded with shiny balls, glittering ornaments, gift boxes below, and an unmistakable star on top, people are on a shopping mood. Roads leading to my neighbourhood shopping mall are already choking with congestion. It takes drivers double the time to find a parking slot and shopper triple the time to pay for their goods. The year-end Christmas shopping spree and madness has begun! Radio stations are also getting on board the Christmas wagon by playing carols and songs about Christmas. This includes Christian ones. Two days ago, I shudder when a popular Christian radio started playing: “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Michael Bublé. Oops!
Wait a minute. It’s not Christmas yet! It’s still the Advent.
1) Advent is both Looking Backward and Forward
In the Church calendar, there are two events toward the end of the year. First is the Advent that comprises of four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day itself. It is taken from the Latin ‘Adventus,’ which literally means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ of the Messiah. The Greek word equivalent is ‘parousia’ which means ‘coming.’ The Advent is a time to reflect on the two comings of Jesus. It is a time to look backward to the first coming of Christ and also a time to look forward to the second coming of Christ. Some churches would adopt emphases of a combination of forward and backward orientations. One example is as follows:
- Advent Week 1 & 2 – Reflections on the Second Coming of Christ
- Advent Week 3 & 4 – Reflections on the First Coming of Christ
Both forward-looking and backward-looking are legitimate expressions of anticipating, hoping, expecting, and embracing.
The second event on the Church calendar is Christmastide, which begins on Christmas Day and ends on January 5th. For these 12 days, it is entirely okay to play Christmas music and sing carols. There is no need to shy away from anything related to Christmas. Throughout Christmastide, your indoor Christmas tree can stay put. Your outdoor Christmas lights can stay lit. Your celebratory mood can stay warm.
Until then, it’s good to remember that it’s not Christmas yet. It’s only the Advent. Why is it important to remember this?
2) It’s About Waiting and Discernment
Here is where tradition can give us some insight. Jesus has consistently maintained his understanding of God’s timing and teaches his disciples to always be on a watch and lookout. This mood is that of expectation and preparation. It requires an intentionality about what we do with our time and our resources. It means knowing what is coming yet remembering that the time is not here yet.
While most people would view the Advent as the period of time leading up to Christmas, it is also about living in a way to anticipate the second coming of Jesus. In Matthew 24, Jesus said:
“So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matt 24:27)
Timing is key and this calls for awareness and anticipation. Like Elijah waiting to hear the true voice of God in a whisper or Jesus sensing the right time to give himself up to the the Jewish religious authorities, discernment is a spiritual discipline that is sorely needed in our culture today. We can boast about prowess in getting things done or the power in making things happen. Yet, like many business-people would attest: Luck happens when opportunity meets preparedness. Christians ought to shy away from ‘luck’ matters, as it means putting our faith in some unknown force or spirit. Instead, the word discernment is a better term to use, where our hands of preparation and anticipation clasp and get ready to clap for the arrival. Advent is a discipline of such preparation and anticipation, rather than a premature declaration of the birth narrative.
3) Advent Candle Lighting
In the Church, one practice we have embarked upon is the use of the Advent Candle Lighting. Each week, we remember a virtue of the advent, the preparation, and the expectation. Different churches adopt varying combinations of the candle lighting. As each week progresses, we move closer to the lighting of the Christ candle. Where possible, this white candle should be lit on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day itself. For us, we practice the following:
- Advent Week 1 – Lighting the candle of HOPE
- Advent Week 2 – Lighting the candle of HOPE + PEACE
- Advent Week 3 – Lighting the candle of HOPE + PEACE + JOY
- Advent Week 4 – Lighting the candle of HOPE + PEACE + JOY + LOVE
Some would swap weeks 3 and 4 by lighting LOVE before JOY. I think that is not critical. The main thing is how all of these virtues can funnel any over-zealous feelings about premature Christmas celebrations into the moods of preparation and anticipation.
“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” (Frederick Buechner)
4) Songs for Advent | Songs for Christmas
Another way to remember the Advent is the list of Advent songs and Christmas songs. As much a possible, we should keep them separate. Of course, there are songs that can be used for either, but a conscientious worship leader would make an effort to distinguish what are Advent songs and what are Christmastide songs. Two of the best Advent songs are “O COME O COME EMMANUEL” and “COME THOU LONG EXPECTED JESUS.”
In the first stanza of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” the writer describes the longing of the heart to be free from captivity. The rejoicing will come after Christ comes, not before. Until then, gift boxes must remain unopened. The waiting continues.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Charles Wesley’s famous “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a remarkable hymn that was inspired by Haggai 2:7 that says: “I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” The glorious coming of the Lord will overwhelm all creation’s imagination. The glory of God is far beyond anything human beings can ever conjure up. Only God can reveal. We can only wait.
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
From the two Advent songs, we can sense one common theme: To be free from captivity or from anything that entangles us inside or outside. This means Christians long to be truly free from the grasps of materialism (where we focus on things rather than people) or consumerism (like that mad rush to shop). We need to be liberated from world expectations for us to do more things, or to busy ourselves to exhaustion. Like a pregnant Mary, it is a time to find a place to rest frequently; to ponder on the words of Scripture regularly; and to prepare our hearts constantly. The Advent is a wonderful time to discipline ourselves to do that.
It’s not Christmas yet. It’s still the Advent. Until Dec 25th, we wait.
“Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him from whom we are waiting.” (Henri Nouwen)