Advent season is not something that is generally recognized outside of Roman Catholicism or the Mainline Protestant denominations. This is sadly a mistake on the part of evangelicalism. As one who has participated in celebrating Advent for the past many years I can honestly say that my evangelical friends are sorely missing out. I know because I used to have the same prejudicial understanding of anything that smacked of tradition or liturgical ceremony. It wasn’t until I began to really understand not only the significance of Advent but also the history that I ran full speed ahead in making sure that my family and our church embraced as much of Advent as we possibly could. Again, here is what I learned…
Advent is a word that means Coming. It is the time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Historically, Advent was not the beginning of the Christian year but the end. The original themes of Advent focused on the second coming of Jesus. Gradually Advent has also come to mean preparing for the coming of Christ’s birth.
Much like other Christmas traditions, the history surrounding Advent is not that clear. It probably began around the fourth century following the rise of Christianity in the ancient Roman world under the reign of Constantine. Originally it was the time that the Christian Church welcomed in new converts through the sacrament of baptism.
Through the Middle Ages, Advent was associated with the Second Coming of Christ and not as much focus on the Birth of Christ. It was seen, much like the Season of Lent (that precedes the Easter season) as a time of prayer and fasting. It wasn’t until recently that the Christian Church has emphasized Advent as the time of anticipating the Nativity, on Christmas Day.
Today the Christian church seeks to embrace both themes to some degree. Some focus primarily on looking back on the Birth of Christ. Other churches seek to emphasize what has not yet occurred namely Christ’s return. This history reveals the simultaneous importance of both penitence and hope of both remorse and rejoicing. This history reveals just how sinful we are and how loved we are at the same time. On a side note, at City Church we seek to inherit both themes: The end of the Christian year with the expectation of the second coming of Christ as well as the beginning of the Christian year and the expectancy of the Birth of Christ our Redeemer.
Every year our church tries to emphasize all the different aspects of Advent. We see it as a season of witnessing and hearing and touching and imagining. This is why we decorate the Church with greenery, we have the Advent wreath and candles and we listen to special music and readings all with the purpose of looking backwards to the birth of Christ and looking forwards to His return.
Part of marking the Advent season is through the reading of particular scriptures while lighting candles. The lighting of candles is something that probably originated amongst pagan religions as well. The candlelight would give comfort at the darkest time of the year as people looked forward to the longer days of spring. The earliest history of ‘Advent candles’ in the Christian church was during the 1500’s. The Christian church redeemed the pagan ritual as their own pointing to what lights truly symbolize: That Christ is the true light of the world. The lighting of candles draws attention to the anticipation of the coming of a Messiah that weaves its way like a golden thread through Old Testament history. As God’s people were abused by power hungry kings, led astray by self-centered prophets, and lulled into apathy by half-hearted religious leaders, there arose a longing among a remnant people for God to raise up a new king who could show them how to be God’s people. They yearned for a return of God’s dynamic presence in their midst.
And so, God revealed to some of the prophets that indeed He would not leave His people without a true Shepherd. While they expected a new earthly king, their initial expectations fell far short of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.
And yet, the candles also point to Christ’s second Advent. While we have been given just a taste of what to expect through the death and resurrection of Christ, the world is not yet fully redeemed. So, we again with expectation, with hope, await God’s new work in history, when God will once again reveal Himself to the world.