What is this all about? What do you mean that it’s not Christmas? The Christmas decorations have been available in stores since September! The merchandise for that “perfect Christmas gift” has been on sale since the third week of November! How can it not possibly be Christmas?
Simple. Christmas is a season of the Christian Church that lasts 12 days from December 25th until January 6th. Just like the song says.
So if that’s Christmas, what is the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day?
Advent is defined as the arrival of a notable thing, person, or event. Advent is the season of waiting and preparation for Christmas. Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas. It begins the Church’s liturgical year by preparing for the birth of Jesus the Christ over four Sundays. Christians believe that Jesus is the Incarnation of God; that is, Jesus is God among us as fully human and fully divine.
The Scriptural readings during Advent reflect this. The first Sunday of Advent explores the prophesies surrounding the coming of the Messiah who is to restore the glory of Israel.
The Second Sunday of Advent tells about the prophet John who arose in Israel. He proclaimed the baptism of repentance and forgiveness to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The Third Sunday of Advent continues with the preaching of John the prophet who denies that he is the Messiah by stating, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The Fourth Sunday of Advent jumps back to the story of the Virgin Mary who visits her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John, the prophet whose preaching we’ve been hearing the previous three weeks. When Mary arrives, the baby John in Elizabeth’s womb leaps and Elizabeth greets her with, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This greeting will become the Hail Mary prayer used on the Roman Catholic rosary. Mary responds with her own canticle, the Magnificat, that begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . .”
Other Topics Explored During Advent
Besides the Christian Church remembering the prophesies and stories that lead up to the birth of Jesus, the Church looks forward to the second coming of Jesus. Different Christian denominations have different ideas about the when and how of the second coming of Christ. As far as I’m concerned, you can believe whichever version makes sense to you.
I prefer to focus on the simple facts that for Christians, Jesus is the Messiah whose birth was foretold by the Hebrew prophets. He was not accepted by the Jews because he did not fit their paradigm of the Messiah, he was killed by the Romans as a threat to the good order and peace in Palestine, and he rose from the dead three days after his death which Christians celebrate on Easter.
Special Ways to Observe Advent
In my tradition (Anglican/Episcopal), we observe Advent by changing the liturgical color to either purple or Sarum Blue. We like to color-code the year so that we know at a glance which hymns we’ll be singing. There are usually special programs that go with the season. This year the Episcopal Church is offering an Advent Calendar that focuses on the Way of Love as outlined by the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
Another feature of Advent is the use of an Advent Wreath which is a circular arrangement of evergreens among four candles. On the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit with special prayers. Each week another candle is added until all four are lit. The candles have three purple and one pink or rose colored candle. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent as this is for Gaudete Sunday after the first word of the Latin introit for the service “Rejoice!”
A singular feature is taking a quiet time during Advent so that you can focus yourself on what is to come. It is not running around to get too many gifts for everyone, or to have everything set up and decorated just so. This will just wear you out and you won’t enjoy your family and friends or the holiday itself. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do anything to prepare for your holiday, but you should choose what you are specifically going to do and do it mindfully. Don’t worry if no one else notices, you do it for yourself and your Christmas celebration.
What to Do with Your Nativity Set
You can, and should, set up your Nativity Scene or Creche in Advent. You can set it up to reflect the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. How long should this take? That’s up to you and your space. Whatever works for you will be just fine. Just don’t put the baby Jesus in until Christmas. After all, that is his birthday! Then leave your Nativity Scene up through the Epiphany, January 6th. This is when the three Kings, or Magi, come bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In some countries, like Italy, this is when gifts are given to children in imitation of the three kings. The gifts are given by the witch La Befana.
So What to Do During Advent?
Advent is YOUR period of preparation for Christmas. Don’t let anyone derail YOUR Christmas. Advent is for you. It should allow you time for quiet reflection as well as frantic preparation if that is your desire. There is nothing that MUST be done for Advent or Christmas. That is the point of the manger. Nothing is required but an open heart.
Please let me know what you think with a comment.