Yesterday was the official beginning of the season we call “Advent.” To those who’ve grown up in, say, less liturgical churches like Baptists or Churches of Christ folks, or even the garden variety evangelical-type “church on the corner” people, the concept of Advent may be a bit fuzzy or even completely alien to one’s experience. It was for me, too, until I discovered it some 20 years ago, and found it to be just about the perfect prescription for so many of the seasonal ills that plague the secular Christmas season in America. Advent is from an old Latin word that means “coming.” Centuries ago wise church leaders designated the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas as Advent season, times set aside for preparation, reflection, introspection—whatever needed to be done—to make sure that Christ wasn’t left out of the season bearing His name and celebrating His entrance into our world. In this culture, it often isn’t easy to make room for Jesus, when Jesus is what we need most. So if the hustle and hurry of a season that seems a mile wide and about an inch deep is the disease, then Advent is the cure.
One of the central symbols of Advent is a circular evergreen wreath with four candles, three purple and one pink; we’ll get more into that symbolism later. Since I’ve always loved playing with fire, the candles of Advent are a pretty enticing fringe-benefit. I like that Advent has fire! (When we used to share Advent lessons with our small children at home, I think they were more excited about the candles and fire than my profound teaching; well, with small children and animals, you do whatever works!) Advent is unlike pretty much anything else that surrounds Christmas these days. Amidst the cacophony and chaos of Black Friday and now Black Saturday and Cyber Monday pre-Christmas sales, I love the fact that Advent starts very quietly. And so it was yesterday in worship; it felt very right to me as the lights dimmed and a child slowly made her way toward the front carrying the first light of Advent. One small candle signals in its timid, elegant, and understated way–that the holy season of Advent has begun, a season of preparation for the coming of Christ into our world.
The first candle is called the candle of prophecy. A prophet’s job was very simple: speak forth God’s word, speak forth the truth, proclaim the message and let it have its full effect on those who would hear. A prophet implies a powerful word; but without the word, there would be no need for a prophet. It makes sense, then, that the Word came first, long before any spokesman. We get some clues about this from the Gospel of John, where he writes eloquently: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….through him all things were made…in him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Those verses are intended, I think, to catch our interest, to make us wonder. We don’t have to wonder long; just a few verses later we really are able to know for sure what we may have expected about this Word, when John writes, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us for awhile…” The Holy Word of God is none other than our Savior Jesus Christ. Although he clearly proclaimed God’s word, he is not only prophet–he is just as much message, the flesh and blood embodiment of God’s redemptive work of love and light, sent for a people who had neither. His is a message of hope and joy, peace and love; but it is also a message of condemnation and judgment—depending on how you receive it, what you do with it.
The season of Advent is about that very coming and becoming, as God himself took on the flesh of humanity, forever altering then and to this day the calendars of empires and hamlets alike, and bringing to its culmination God’s plan of redemption, which started, you might say, on human terms, in a stable—and ended on His terms on a cross. That’s why we have Christmas trees. That’s why we have a cross; and that’s why we have this table, as well. Note that it started quietly and ended magnanimously. We smile and ooh and ahh at the baby in the stable; we cringe in horror in sight of the cross and the mangled God-man nailed to it. Those images might seem at odds, but both are history, both were necessary parts of God’s unfolding plan. And we must embrace and celebrate both if we are to be participants in receiving this inexpressible gift of Jesus.
Just as Advent begins quietly with only one small candle, so began the mystery we call Christmas, when in a quiet, elegant, and understated way, God came down, all the way down to the mud and dust and muck of this planet he himself had created. We know to celebrate now, because we understand the story backwards. But when he first came, almost no one celebrated, because almost no one noticed. Yes, there were stars and angels, but only a few were paying attention; so only a few experienced that incredible first Christmas, only a few saw it for what it was. And it may be still more that way than you might think.
Amidst the torrent of Black Friday and Black Saturday all-night and all-day shoppers, how many, do you think, really know what Christmas means, or might mean to them? Bent on getting just the right present, at just the right price, it’s very easy in this season to miss entirely the greatest gift of the greatest price, a gift of a Presence–Immanuel, God With Us. It is a gift given for you and for me—not a perfect gift for the man or woman who has everything—but indeed The Perfect Gift for the man or woman who has nothing. You won’t find that gift under a tree; you’ll find it nailed to one, and then offered up at the table of communion, the body and blood of that same Jesus. It is the unexpected, surprise marriage of our nothing and His everything that should make Christmas a season of joy. The danger of this season and the danger of His Table are really the same—that we not see it for what it is, that we dully and dimly muddle on, unknown and unknowing faces in the crowd, searching in every direction but the right one.
As John said, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” It still shines, and it is still misunderstood. During these first days of Advent be sure that you don’t settle for only some shallow, superficial holiday happiness, when you were meant and made to experience the deep, abiding, unquenchable joy of Jesus. He’s coming near…it’s time to get ready!