I grew up in evangelical megachurch smack dab on the golden buckle of the Bible Belt. As a kid, I was a little foggy on the meaning of Advent. Like, I knew it meant my friends at evangelical mega-private school would start rehearsing their caroling chops for the Singing Christmas Tree, a perplexing spectacle oddly similar to watching the Star Wars Holiday Special only with extra manger.
Then my parents got divorced, and Christmas became a fairly miserable balancing act, which involved dressing up like Norman Rockwell and driving to one house or the other listening to Twisted Sister’s A Twisted Christmas at maximum volume, dead to all the presents and noise and decorations. When I was old enough, I moved out to the mountains, and Christmas just kinda dropped off the radar. It was a good day for snowboarding. The lifts were empty until after lunch.
I’ve gone full circle on a lot of things in my life, but it’s only been by the grace of God that Christmas has been redeemed from out of the morass of consumerism, politics, and nihilism into which it has fallen. Why is Advent important? What changed Christmas for me? I’ll be the first to say my change was a gradual process that began with authentic gospel-centered fellowship, scriptural preaching, and a whole lot of prayer. Which isn’t to say I’m some kinda Grinch. Well, maybe a little. But in more recent years, as I’ve discipled folks in the gospel during the holidays, I’ve come to see a different side of Christmas, one that they don’t make into Hallmark movies, and at the heart of it all is the importance of Advent.
Derived from the Latin word adventus, “coming,” Advent marks the beginning of the Western Liturgical Year and commences on Advent Sunday (generally the fourth Sunday before December 25th). All important stuff to know if you’re writing that Wikipedia article in your bucket list, but here’s where it gets cool. Adventus is the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia –typically used in reference to the Second Coming of Christ.
For as the lightening comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. – Matthew 24:27
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:22-23
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. – 1 John 2:28
Related terms from the Greek include epiphany variously translated “appearing” or “glorious manifestation” and apocalypse, that oft misunderstood word meaning “revelation” or “to disclose what is invisible.”
So, here’s the thing, forget everything you thought you knew about Advent candles and the local live nativity play and reading Luke 2 at your kids… Wait. Rewind. Don’t forget that stuff, it’s actually important, too. But it’s equally important that we engage with what scripture is saying about the meaning of Christ’s expectation and appearance to us. If we simply focus on the history of Christmas, we are inviting the same host of problems that attended the Pharisees—myopically pouring over dusty scrolls, refusing to see the living God right there in front of them.
Said another way, during Advent we are not simply remembering some fateful event in the past, we’re celebrating a Messiah who was and is and is to come. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). There is a special significance in this mystery as we approach the celebration of God’s incarnation. Advent is the time to shout hallelujah for his coming return, to pray to hasten the day that we might see our Redeemer with our own eyes, to fast for revival in our cities, churches, and families.
So, I ask you: how does Advent change if you are the one who’s going to see the Son of God? Can you imagine the wonder such a sight will inspire?—the Christ born of the Spirit, one with God, the hope of the nations? Emmanuel. God is with us. Who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
On that coming day my eyes will see something sweeter than honey, more precious than gold! Until then, I keep my eyes fixed on that goal—it’s a struggle, sure—but all the mall Santa pomp and circumstance goes mute before it.
A Light for Revelation
Luke 2 takes on a new light when I read it with a mindset that it isn’t just some old traditional tale. The story of the Birth of Christ teaches us how to await our own future encounter with Christ. Like Simeon, we look for God’s consolation to this sick and hurting world, we hope in a Living Redeemer, and we too can seek Christ in the Spirit. We, too, can praise him like Simeon, singing, “You are a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32)
Likewise, Advent is an invitation to enter into the story of Christ’s coming, and Christmas is a wonderful time to bear witness to what Christ has done in your life by entering into the excitement of the celebration with your family, friends, neighbors, and fellow disciples.
OK, maybe I was initially a little too hasty to knock the Singing Christmas Thing. Over and over in the gospels we read about folks singing and bearing witness to the Messiah— prophets, prophetesses, priests, shepherds, kings, folks from every segment and class of society—and not just people, angels too. They bring gifts. They sing songs. They celebrate. So, if a Singing Tree is your idea of a party, rock on. I’ll be down at the local children’s shelter tearing up some Guns N’ Roses on the karaoke.
Whatever we wind-up doing during the Christmas season, remember we do it to magnify the King of Kings. We’re also bearing witness to the world about just how deeply the light of God’s love has changed our lives. So while Christmas pickles and mistletoe are fun… it might be time to rethink some of the worn-out ways we wade through the holiday madness. I’m reminded of Simeon’s final words to Mary and Joseph: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Bad example, but I got asked to pray at the office thanksgiving potluck the other day. I remember thinking, ‘I can do this, right? I mean I won’t get arrested?’ And so far the Prayer Police haven’t come for me yet. What I’m saying is Christ pierces right to the heart of things. The Spirit has an absolutely timeless way of revealing the thoughts of many hearts. So, during Advent, pray for the Spirit to guide you to Christ this Christmas. Pray for a revelation of how best to proclaim Christ to your friends, family, fellow believers, and neighbors during this celebratory time of year. The Spirit wanted me to write Christmas poems for my church. So I’m working on that, and yeah, I’m wearing a Santa hat.
Ben Roberts is follower of Christ & an Editor at both Gospel Centered Discipleship & the speculative literary journal, Unstuck. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, he lives in Austin with his wife, Jessica & son, Solomon. They fellowship and worship at Austin City Life.