Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas (this year, that’s Dec. 2). It begins in the cold and the dark: it comes at the end of fall, the beginning of winter, when the light is waning — all symbols of the fallen state in which we find ourselves, and all visceral reminders that we need the Light and that we cannot make it for ourselves.
The word Advent itself means “coming.” It’s the season of preparing for the coming of Christ. Mostly in Advent we are thinking of Christ’s first coming, as a baby in Bethlehem, and this is right and good. But Advent has an eschatological dimension, too, so even as we prepare for the Advent, or coming, of Christ as a human baby in history, we also prepare for the return of the risen and glorified Christ at the end of history. And there’s a third dimension to Advent, and that’s the personal one — the Advent or coming of Christ to dwell in each of us, to inhabit our hearts, renew our minds, and transform our habits.
Despite the commercial hype that is December in America, Advent in the church has historically been a season of quiet, of stripping down, of fasting. Its liturgical color is purple, the color of repentance. It is a season of slowing down so that we might attend to the mystery that is the Incarnation — the amazing mystery of God-with-us, God inhabiting human flesh, God born as a baby. God — the uncontainable, infinite, eternal Spirit who created the cosmos — now contained in His creation, in the cramped finitude of human flesh.
It takes a lifetime for the truth to settle into our souls that God loves us so much He was willing to become one of us, to shrink Himself to our small stature. Our forebears in faith knew this; they knew that we would need a long time to ponder the mystery of Incarnation. And so they gave us Advent, four weeks to ponder and pray and prepare — not just once but year after year after year.
Most years, I will confess, Advent sneaks up on me. Usually my Advent wreath is ready by the time Advent begins — but often I’m not. And that is why I am so grateful for the church’s calendar. It gives me time not to be ready, time to prepare. Slowly.
At the beginning of Advent, our family has only the Advent wreath with its four tall tapers, a silent herald of good things to come. Each night at dinner we light a candle in the wreath and sing the first verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We do this every night in Advent. And each night this ritual creates a little pause in my evening, a moment when the flickering candle flame and our voices raised in song remind me that, however dark it may be, God is right here with us, circling this table, holding our hands, holding us.
This is the gift of Advent — the gift of slowing down so we might see the One who shines in the darkness, the One whose name means “God is with us.”
— By K.C. Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and parishioner at Holy Trinity Edmonds