To say 2020 did not go the way we planned would be an understatement. By this point, we all ought to be comfortable with the unexpected, at home in the constancy of not knowing, at peace with the low drone of anxiety underlying every twist and turn. But our brains are fearfully and wonderfully engineered to solve problems, to find answers, to draw conclusions. And that is not something our brains have been able to do of late. Instead, we’ve been given the opportunity to “trust in the Lord, with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…” the invitation to quiet the spinning mind by residing more in the heart. As the Psalmist cries: “Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen thine heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord!”
Waiting is what Advent is all about, the word derived from the Latin adventus — arrival, or coming. Tis the season where we observe Advent in our churches. While this year we may not all be physically attending church, the season of Advent seems especially prescient in our personal lives, as we lean toward a more hopeful future, a negative COVID test or a healthy recovery for ourselves and our loved ones, an end to the pandemic, a return to school and work, the arrival of the Christ child, and his second coming. Redemption. Restoration. Peace.
This year, Advent is a special invitation to anticipate, to hope. Rooted in the early church — as far back as the 4th century — Advent continues to be celebrated today by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Protestants alike. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the one nearest the Feast of St Andrew the Apostle, and every following Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve. For this reason, the length of the season changes each year. Advent 2020 began on November 29 and will last for 26 days.
Evidence of Advent’s arrival could be as simple as the cloth or linens in the sanctuary changed to purple, or the most common sign across denominations born of the Middle Ages, the Advent wreath. This wreath made of evergreen often sits horizontally atop a podium at the church front, with four taper candles following the wreath’s circle and one rising in the center. In the Catholic tradition, God can be found in everything — the evergreen represents his unchanging love, the circle, God’s eternity, and the candles, the light of Christ in the dark winter nights. The three purple candles are lit during the first three Sundays for preparation and repentance, the rose candle on the fourth Sunday to rejoice at his near arrival and the white candle in the center, illuminated on Christmas Eve.
In the early church, Advent was a time for new Christians to prepare for baptism. Today , however, during Advent we imagine how it would have felt to hear of the Messiah’s coming after centuries of anticipation, and we observe how it feels now to wait for his return. Our Christmas carols evoke that sense of longing, as we sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel — and ransom captive Israel / that mourns in lonely exile here,” or “long lay the world, in sin sin and error pining / till he appeared and the soul felt its worth” on that “O Holy Night.” We begin with the prophet Isaiah, as Handel did in his famous Messiah: “Comfort ye my people,” and we finish with the prophet’s joyous premonition: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
Indeed, “Joy to the World” and other songs of celebration are reserved for Christmas Eve in churches following the Advent tradition. “No more let sins and sorrows grow / nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / far as the curse is found.” Until then, we are invited to contemplate the brokenness of the world — not difficult to do today — and anticipate Christ’s second coming when our mourning will be turned into dancing.
Some believers mark this period with a fast or, similar to the Lenten tradition, a giving up of something in observance, perhaps social media, a type of food, a daily practice, or habit. Some dedicate their time to serving their community, like the Advent Conspiracy movement calling Christians to give more and spend less. This Christmas, we are likely celebrating the holidays a little differently than usual, and Advent can be an invitation to deepen our faith and remember what’s really at the heart of it. For God so loved the world…
For a contemplative Advent playlist, listen to On the Lookout: Christmas Eve on Spotify.