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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Or, really, it’s been looking like Christmas in many stores since September. Houses are decorated. Some churches have been holding special Christmas services since the start of December.
But for millions of Christians, it’s not quite Christmastime yet. You see, many of us observe the season of Advent for much of December. So what is Advent?
Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. It lasts for the four Sundays immediately before Christmas on December 25. This season also reminds us that one day Christ will come again in glory. In other words, we’re getting ready to meet Jesus, whether it’s at church on Christmas or when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
This quiet season of Advent has its own customs and traditions. There are beloved songs, but you probably won’t hear them piped over the sound system or played by brass ensembles outdoors. Perhaps the chart-topper for Advent is “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” If you don’t know that one, you might not be humming other Advent classics such as “On Jordan’s bank” or “Come, thou long expected Jesus.”
Advent invites us quiet down and listen for the still, small voice of God.
The most well-known Advent tradition is an Advent wreath. This is a set of four candles that are lighted over the course of the four Sundays of Advent. Seeing more and more light each week is a poignant sign of how we need the light of Christ to illumine this sometimes hope-less world. Sometimes there’s a fifth candle symbolizing Jesus Christ, and that makes the sign even more brilliant for us.
I love Advent, this time of waiting and preparation. Every year, I need it. This year, my Advent is especially sharp. After a summer health crisis, I’m waiting for heart valve repair surgery. My surgery has been rescheduled a couple of times. I’m yearning for the healing that will follow. But since I cannot operate on myself, I have little choice but to wait and reflect. My waiting this year has really honed my awareness of Advent and the spiritual practice of waiting.
It’s like that with our preparation for Christ’s return in glory. We don’t know exactly when it will happen. So for now, all we can do is wait and prepare. We prepare by taking stock of those parts of our lives that need to change. And we continue our preparation by doing the difficult work of change in our lives.
Advent also gives us time to celebrate with full joy at Christmas. If people are coming over for a big meal at our home, we spend lots of time cleaning, preparing food, and ensuring that everything is ready for us to offer hospitality to those who will come into our home. The preparation often makes the celebration even more special. It’s like that with Christmas.
Advent reminds us that we can’t always get the best things instantly, but we can prepare. Advent makes yearning holy.
When I spend a few weeks getting ready for Christmas, it makes my celebration of Christmas that much more special. Working on the broken parts of my life makes me even more grateful for God’s love for me in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Quiet prayer makes boisterous Christmas carols even more magnificent.
Advent is deeply counter-cultural. We live in an age of instant gratification. We live in an age that says, “If you want to be heard, be louder.” But Advent says just the opposite. Advent reminds us that we can’t always get the best things instantly, but we can prepare. Advent makes yearning holy.
In an noisy age, Advent says that quiet might be good for us. And it reminds me of my first-grade teacher, who knew that the surest way to get a rowdy class to settle down is to whisper, and we all got quiet to hear what she was saying. Advent invites us quiet down and listen for the still, small voice of God.
If you say Merry Christmas to me today, I’ll probably smile and say, “Soon!” or “Almost!” It’s not that I don’t want you to have a Merry Christmas, but I’m saving that greeting for December 25 and the twelve days of Christmas that follow.
But for now, let me close by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, now or in a few days, whenever it’s the right time for you to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.