Advent is the season the Church sets aside to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth (also known as Christmas). This year, Advent begins on Sunday, December 1. In this post, we’ll talk about the history of Advent, the purpose and some ideas for celebrating together.
What is Advent?
Advent is a period of fasting and preparation. It begins four Sundays before Christmas Eve and ends on Christmas Day. Advent means “coming”, and the season is meant to help us to remember how Israel waited for the coming of the promised Messiah.
Christians spend the four Sundays of Advent imaginatively placing ourselves in the sandals of ancient Israel. The period of waiting and fasting ends on December 25, the first day of Christmas. The next twelve days are full of feasting (yes, just like the song – golden rings and drumming drummers and french hens and all that).
The 12 Days of Christmas last from December 25 to January 5!
The Christmas celebration concludes on January 6th with Epiphany, the day that marks the visit of the Magi. Advent, then, is the 22+ day period of fasting that leads to a two-week period of feasting celebrating the birth of Jesus.
Why celebrate Advent?
Though it’s enough to note that much of the Church has historically celebrated Advent, a dedicated period of fasting before the feasting of Christmas can be radically countercultural. American Christmas begins on Black Friday (which now apparently begins on Thursday evening). As Jon Steward observed, Christmas has started consuming other holidays.
From Black Friday forward, American Christmas is non-stop feasting: decorating and Christmas music, non-stop parties, travel, shopping.
Feasting without fasting is dangerous. Unchecked feasting leads to unchecked consumption.
As Black Friday consumes Thanksgiving, “Christmas” becomes toxic – people actually die from Christmas shopping. Observing Advent, intentionally fasting, waiting to celebrate Christmas can be a formative practice. Plus, after waiting 4 weeks to celebrate while everyone else is humming “Jingle Bells”, you’re going to want to party for 12 days!
Observe Advent, and you find Christmas doesn’t end on December 26. You’ll keep the party going for days as your indulgence is made all the sweeter by the time you’ve been waiting.
Choosing to wait for Christmas, rather than mindlessly indulging all December, is a powerful spiritual experience.
And before you say, Bah humbug to you, Mr. Scrooge!, observing Advent can be a fun, meaningful experience for your church, your family and you personally!
How do I celebrate Advent?
We have 2,000 years of tradition to look to for ideas to celebrate Advent. Since Advent is built around the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, you can shape your church’s worship gatherings around preparation (rather than celebration). You can do the same for your family! Here’re a few ideas you will find meaningful:
This Advent begins Year A in the Lectionary calendar. You can find the readings here. Many churches read the Scriptures each Sunday as a candle on the Advent Wreath is lit. An Advent Wreath is comprised of four candles, one for each Sunday, usually with a white candle lit on Christmas Eve to represent Jesus. The candles are either all red or three purple and one pink (lit in this order: purple, purple, pink, purple – purple is the traditional color for a season of repentance).
Using a Wreath, Candles and Readings is a great way to incorporate lay persons into your worship gathering. Whole families can stand together at the front, read a Scripture and light the candle.
Churches often jump the gun on Christmas carols (it’s hard to resist breaking out “Joy to the World” when it’s all over the radio). But there’re plenty of great carols written for the season of waiting and preparation: “Comfort, Comfort O My People”, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and my personal favorite “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” are just a few of the familiar songs people associate with Christmas. They’ll fit great into your worship gatherings and – especially if presented with intention and invitation, can shape the congregation’s imaginations to prepare!
By the way, Page CXVI is putting out an album designed around the Advent/Christmas season on Tuesday, December 3. Get it here.
Private or Family Practices
I grew up with an Advent Wreath in the house. We used one in our Church’s corporate worship, but also did one as a family at home. It’s a great way to teach kids to wait for Christmas – not that most kids have a problem remembering that Christmas is coming. Here’re a couple of other ideas you should consider:
You can find a book or calendar that marks each day of Advent with a surprise of some kind: a story, a toy, a sweet. It’s a small foretaste of the Christmas celebration, and it keeps the idea of waiting and anticipation at the forefront for you and your family. Here’s a great Advent book my friend Matt highly recommends.
You can find dozens of devotional readings designed specifically for Advent. Here’s a great one from Henri Nouwen, and another from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like the calendars, these devotionals help you to enter into Israel’s story, into the waiting. Though you will have to buy your own candy.
Since Advent is a time of waiting, it’s also a season for reflection and repentance, similar to Lent. You can consider choosing something to give up for the duration of Advent, something you’ll take up again on Christmas Day. The practice of fasting makes the practice of feasting meaningful (and vice versa).
Whether you grew up with Advent or have never heard of it before, I hope you decide to slow down a little bit and make some time this year to observe. Christmas marks the day God became human. The day the infinite became finite. And Advent is a wonderful way to help us celebrate that once-in-a-cosmos event as intentionally as we can. And party hard for two weeks. Because Jesus has come, and the world will never be the same!