The season of Advent—a word that means arrival—is the season of waiting.
“We can hardly stand the wait! / Please Christmas, don’t be late.” Most of you can hear the song in your head immediately, can’t you? Those squeaky, aggravating chipmunk voices singing the Christmas song we all love to hate. The song is a trite (and annoyingly persistent!) example of secular culture’s approach to Christmas commercialism. But for Christians with eyes to see and ears to hear, it may serve as a reminder that the season of Advent—a word that means arrival—is precisely a season of waiting, of anticipation, and of preparation for the Big Day, the day after which nothing was ever the same.
Our culture practices this anticipation, even while entirely missing the point. The Christmas decorations hit store shelves immediately after Halloween (and seemingly earlier each year). The radio stations start their Christmas programming as soon as Thanksgiving passes. School children begin rehearsing “holiday songs” for their end-of-semester programs. Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales call forth the early shoppers, and the coupons and sales continue even up until Christmas Eve for procrastinators.
If you have children or have ever been around a couple preparing to welcome a child into the world, you’ve experienced this. We receive the big news. Then, we wait. We begin to prepare. We paint the walls and decorate the nursery, and excitement builds. We buy a crib and assemble it. And we wait. We read parenting books with titles like What to Expect When You’re Expecting…and we wait. Those last few weeks seem to last forever. Alas, we wait. Imagine what Mary and Joseph must have felt!
Time Keeps on Slippin’…into the Future
Advent must be considered in the context of the Christian calendar in order to be fully appreciated. The Christian calendar, also called the liturgical calendar or the Christian year, is a pattern through which the Church narrates the story of the God who was in Christ. While some churches have followed this pattern for centuries, many evangelical congregations are just beginning to (re)discover and embrace the Christian calendar, and have found it enriching to their worship and discipleship. It is simply one more way we can “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
The Christian calendar isn’t prescribed in the Bible, and it wasn’t handed down by Divine fiat with the command that we slavishly submit to it. But it is biblical, and it was handed down through the Church we call “one, holy, universal, and apostolic,” which, sourced by the Spirit, gave us our Bible.
Scripture reveals that God gave time as a good gift. According to the creation account in Genesis 1, on the fourth day, God declares: “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years….”
Time has a purpose, and that purpose has to do with how we worship and how we observe sacred time.
In Scripture, we find ample evidence of the appropriateness of holy days, religious feasts, fasts, rituals, and rhythms, particularly in the worship of the people of Israel. However, on a larger scale, we see that the story told through the Christian calendar is the Bible’s story—the story of God’s saving work down through the ages.
The Christian calendar is one way the Church has sought to “tell time” as God’s time. For Christians, January 1 is not a significant day; it is simply the eighth day of Christmas! Four Sundays before Christmas, the first Sunday of Advent, is actually “New Year’s Day” for the Church. We then journey through Christmas and Epiphany before entering the season of Lent. During Lent, we join Jesus on his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness in preparation for His years of earthly ministry. We seek to draw closer to God by purifying and simplifying our lives, repenting of our sins, and preparing our hearts to experience the events of Holy Week.
The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday can take us on a roller-coaster of emotions as we walk through Jesus’ final days: the Last Supper, Gethsemane, His arrest and crucifixion, His entombment, and finally His resurrection on Easter morning. From there, we careen on toward Christ’s Ascension to the Father (40 days after Easter), and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (50 days after Easter), followed by the lengthy season known as Ordinary Time, during which we focus on how God has worked in the life and mission of the Church.
To Everything, There is a Season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
Human beings are “time-bound” creatures by Divine design. We naturally tend to organize our lives around rhythms that play out in time. Depending upon our vocation, different seasons bring different expectations and demands.
I come from a line of farmers on one side of my family and pastors on the other. I have observed that with pastors and farmers alike, the changing seasons determined much of the way we lived our lives.
Accountants have to deal with the tax season. Politicians and civil servants have election cycles. The semesters and breaks of the school year measure time for students and teachers. And sometimes our recreation, rather than our vocation, determines which seasons matter most: when we get to hunt or fish, which sports we get to follow, whether we’re able to get out the boat or the motorcycle or the snow skis.
Growing up as a pastor’s kid in the Church of the Nazarene, I didn’t rigorously follow the Christian year; but without fail, we did observe Advent. Every year, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving we would enter a sanctuary decorated for Christmas: trees and garland alongside nativities and the wreath of Advent candles, the popular traditions intermingled with the sacred. For each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we lit the candles, usually punctuated by readings from Old Testament prophecy, and we sang songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”
Sometimes we would lose the plot a bit, and sing “Away in a Manger” or “We Three Kings of Orient Are” during Advent. It’s hard to resist the urge to fast-forward to the climax of Christmas Day, just as it’s difficult during Holy Week to dwell in the despair of Good Friday and Holy Saturday when we know “Sunday’s coming!”
But Advent is about waiting.
Patience and hope are oft-neglected virtues in our day and age, but this is precisely what Advent seeks to cultivate in us: patient, hopeful anticipation that our God is trustworthy and does not make empty promises.
Looking Forward While Looking Back
During Advent, not only do we anticipate an event that has already taken place—Jesus’ first coming—but we also look forward to and anticipate his second coming! The next time you sing “Joy to the World,” pay attention to the explicit references to Christmas. Guess what? You won’t find any! Isaac Watts’ hymn actually looks forward to Christ’s second coming, made clear in the third stanza (which, ironically, is the verse most often omitted): “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
The reign of Christ over heaven and earth is inaugurated in His nativity, to be sure, but “Joy to the World” is a vision of its future fulfillment, the reversal of the Fall, and the restoration of all creation.
This Advent, as we prepare to welcome the God who comes to us, I wish us all a “Happy New Year,” and invite us to begin a journey through God’s salvation history as told through the rhythms of the Christian calendar. In so doing, we join with countless Christians across space and time who have ordered their lives and their worship according to this pattern, all to the glory of God.
Brannon Hancock is Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Worship at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, and worship pastor at First Church of the Nazarene in Marion, Indiana.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2017