By Dr. Bruce Humphrey, November 2015
An entertaining definition of “optimist” is the husband who asks his wife on the Friday after Thanksgiving, “What’s for lunch?”
The turkey leftovers are still cooling in the fridge when we jump into the anticipation and preparations for Christmas. Who will travel to join us this year? We have gifts to be bought, wrapped, and mailed to loved ones far away. Vacation schedules are planned and days off calculated. Not to speak of rearranging the furniture to set up the tree, putting up decorations, hanging ornaments, trimming the tree, and transforming the house for the next month. Christmas is more than merely one day, it is a wonderful, festive season of excitement.
Followers of Jesus bring some spiritual aspects to this anticipatory season. The four weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian calendar are called “Advent.” What is Advent? Advent is defined in the dictionary as “arrival.”
Think with me about arrivals. Any arrival involves the opening of the home for the guest, providing hospitality, welcoming the visitor. We prepare for the arrival of family and friends by doing a more thorough cleaning of the house. We change the sheets and prepare a guest room. Perhaps we set aside some special time to do touristy activities with our guests. As the day approaches we anticipate the arrival. Then comes the joyful announcement, “Grandma’s at the front door!”
These days, we hardly ever hear a family use the term “advent” in these settings. No child asks her parents, “When is grandma’s advent?” The word has become almost exclusively a Church word referring to the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world. Today we commonly refer to “Advent wreaths,” “Advent calendars,” and “Advent candles” tied into Christmas preparations.
It is easy for us to hang the wreath and put up a calendar to count the days of December, without grasping the spiritual opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christ. Let’s explore how we can return to an older understanding of Advent in order to grow our souls.
The wise leaders of the ancient church realized that God created humans to experience life in rhythms and seasons. Rather than life being day after day of sameness, God intended us to enjoy highs and lows, night and day, winter and summer. Changes bring fresh insight about life. The highs feel higher when they follow a low. The sun is appreciated more after the storm clouds. Long winter nights heighten the coziness of candlelight as well as flames in the fireplace.
Appreciating the value of living our lives in the midst of changing seasons, the early church came up with a way to heighten the Christmas celebration. What if we intentionally took time leading up to the feast of Christmas by fasting and taking time for silence, prayer, and repentance? Instead of expecting the whole month of December to be nothing but happy, happy, let’s create spiritual space for reflection. Thus the season of Advent was developed intentionally as four weeks of humility in the midst of the preparations. The actions of anticipation were seasoned with quiet moments of confession and prayer. The count down to Christmas included acts of service for others along with the excitement of our own blessed holiday.
Advent became a spiritual assessment season leading up to the huge celebration of Christmas. Christmas celebrates Jesus, the Son of God, arriving on planet earth to love and forgive us. Advent reminds us to pause in order to appreciate why we need God’s love and forgiveness. Christmas announces Jesus is the light of the world. Let’s pause first to realize how dark our world is without him. Jesus brings us reconciliation and renewal. Let’s prepare for this good news by repenting of our brokenness and the ways we have wounded others around us.
So where did the Church get this idea of taking four weeks of repentance in preparation for Christmas? We see this idea clearly in the life of John the Baptist from the gospels. His preaching, “prepare the way of the Lord,” fulfills the ancient prophecy of Isaiah. Hear afresh Isaiah’s prophecy:
A voice cries; “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord: Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5)
Isaiah describes how the people prepared for the arrival of royalty. When they heard a king was coming to visit, the people built and maintained a royal road into their city. The road was made as smooth and flat as possible. Hills were razed and valleys elevated to demonstrate their love for their king.
Matthew uses this Isaiah prophecy to bring his Christmas story to its climax. Matthew’s favorite refrain is “and so was fulfilled what the LORD had spoken by the prophet.” His Christmas story is about ancient prophecies by Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah fulfilled in the arrival of baby Jesus. He completes his Christmas story with the preaching of John the Baptist, sent to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy about preparing the way for the LORD.
Just as God choreographed hundreds of years of Hebrew history and prophecies to prepare for Christ’s arrival, so we are invited to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ arrival during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Just as prophets called the people to repent and turn their hearts to God, so we use this Advent season for the same purpose.
Let me share a personal example. Years ago our home became a three-generation house. Our daughter’s family lived with us for five years while her husband completed his education.
It was fun to decorate the house with our pre-school grandchildren. There were ornaments hung over the fireplace. The Advent daily calendar was opened each day with zeal as we counted down the days to Christmas. The presents under the tree were touched and moved and handled frequently. Our church’s pre-school taught the grandchildren a Christmas song about Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus in the manger.
To be honest, we were unsure how much of the Christmas story our three-year-old granddaughter understood. That year, on the week before Christmas, we took a Sunday evening drive though some neighborhoods decked out with extra Christmas lights. Our grandchildren in the back seat oohed and aahed as we drove slowly past various lighted reindeer and Santa sleighs, angels and shepherds, snowmen and lighted icicles. Then suddenly our granddaughter bubbled over with excitement as she exclaimed, “Look they have Baby God in the manger!”
Will we use this Advent season to make room for “Baby God” in our hearts?