For many people, the Christmas season has already begun. Black Friday means stores kick off their official Christmas sales and hordes of shoppers flock to malls, and shopping centres festooned with Yuletide decorations. Television Christmas specials, school Christmas concerts, work-related Christmas parties and more Christmas events fill calendars for the next several weeks.
Yet in the midst of the rush, Advent beckons us to remember the blessings of this often overlooked season. While the blessings of Advent are numerous, especially: patience, perspective, hope, service and opportunity.
Advent is a season of waiting. We gradually light the candles of the Advent wreath, adding a new candle each week until all four candles are lit. If your family has an Advent calendar, you mark the slow, daily progress of the season. All this symbolic waiting has roots in the theological significance of Advent.
In Advent, we remember Jesus’ first coming as a baby born in Bethlehem. Old Testament prophets who proclaimed that God would fulfill the promise: the coming of the Prince of Peace, the righteous branch of David’s line, the Messiah. Later, an angelic visitor will tell Mary and Joseph of Jesus’ coming.
At this time, we also remember that Jesus promised to come again in the future. We live in this time of waiting, when we’re between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and its culmination, between the “already” of Jesus’ first coming and the “not yet” of his return. During Advent, we also remember we don’t know exactly how long the wait will be. We’ve been waiting for the Kingdom to come in its fullness for nearly 2,000 years; the wait may be over soon — or it may be thousands of years from now.
The blessing of Advent patience teaches us to let go of anxiety. We can’t make Jesus’ return come any sooner. What we can do is live by the values of the Kingdom in the here and now.
We can easily get caught up in the jolly frenzy of the world around us. We can be seduced into believing we have to make this the best Christmas ever for ourselves and our loved ones. We may get caught up in the quest to buy the perfect gift or in the desire to receive the thing we most crave. We may become outraged over people who say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Advent is a reminder of what’s really important. We are to live by the values of the Kingdom. The prophet Isaiah uses the image of the mountain of the Lord’s house becoming the highest of the mountains. In that time, we’ll pray to learn God’s ways, to walk in God’s paths. We’ll beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, turning implements of war into tools for caring for the earth and nurturing life. Nations will no longer wage war. While we wait for that promised future to come in fullness, we’ll walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5). Advent reminds us of the Christian perspective that walking that path, loving God and loving our neighbour, is where our focus should be.
We’re entering into the darkest time of the year, with the sun gradually setting earlier and rising later each day until the winter equinox next month. All the world’s focus on spending time with family and friends during this season can be depressing for those who are alone. The news is often filled with bad news around the world and closer to home. All these factors and more can lead us to believe that things are hopeless.
Yet during Advent, we remember the hope we have in God. We remember the prophets who lived in much more challenging times than ours, times when their nations were on the brink of extinction, when many wondered if God still loved them. Yet Jeremiah, Isaiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, Micah, and others remind us that nothing is impossible with God. The light of God continues to shine, even in the deepest darkness. And as a people of hope, our mission is to reflect that light so others can hope.
This time of year provides numerous opportunities to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ with our actions. Many nonprofit organizations have seasonal service projects that individuals and church groups can join. Or you or your group can plan a short-term project: go carolling at a hospital or a retirement community. Host a party for family, friends, or neighbours, and ask each guest to bring a nonperishable food item for the local food pantry. Check with an agency that works with people who are homeless to learn about how you can help during this season. You may find your service becomes the start of an ongoing commitment.
The end of the year provides opportunity to share God’s love with others. While the Christmas frenzy surrounding us can be overwhelming, it can also open doors. Even a person who rarely thinks about attending worship, engaging in Bible study, or praying understands that this season is at heart a celebration of God’s love. The weeks of Advent can provide the perfect opportunity for you to extend the blessings of the season to other people.
You may find that your friends, co-workers, neighbours, and family members who aren’t part of a church family may be open to an invitation to join you for worship, either on a Sunday morning during Advent or on Christmas Eve.
Advent offers many blessings. When we worship during this season, sing Advent hymns, read the lectionary texts, light the candles of the Advent wreath, slowly reveal the days of the Advent calendar, serve others, and take the opportunity to share God’s good news, we receive the blessings of Advent and offer those blessings to others.