Christmas is a season of many things, depending on whom you ask. A season of joy, of peace, of love. A season of family, reunions, rekindling relationships. A season of gifts, surprises, twinkling lights, and glittering trees. A season of busyness, financial strain, stress, even loneliness.
To many Christians, Christmas is considered a season of waiting and wondering.
For centuries, Christians have prepared for Christmas by observing the season of Advent, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. People observe Advent differently—some with candles and traditional prayers, others with Advent wreaths and daily Bible readings. But no matter how we celebrate, Advent is characterized by a sense of hopeful waiting and preparation for the celebration of Jesus Christ’s coming into the world.
AN ANCIENT LONGING
Is there something you are waiting for? A desire close to your heart that you want fulfilled? Perhaps it’s a job, a relationship, or a new housing situation. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end in your efforts, and you’ve been praying that God will provide a new opportunity, an open door, an open window…anything.
Maybe you’re waiting for a change in our world. Every day, heavy news rolls in from around the globe with stories of violence, injustice, deceit, pain, and brokenness. Where are the answers to these problems? Maybe you’ve lifted up frustrated prayers to God, asking, “How long will this continue?”
The people of Israel were very familiar with the concept of waiting. At the time of Jesus’ birth, they had been waiting centuries for their promised Messiah—the one who would deliver them from their sins, overthrow the other nations and government oppressing them, heal the world, and stitch up the wounds and tears caused by sin.
The one God promised in Isaiah 9:6–7:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (ESV)
Imagine for a moment living in the Israelites’ place. Generations before you have waited for the Messiah, and though you hope to see him in your lifetime, generations after you could still be waiting. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the Israelites faltering in their trust in God as they try to fulfill their desires through their own efforts. And in Romans 8:23, Paul says that as we wait for Jesus’ return, we “groan within ourselves.” Waiting patiently was painfully hard for the Israelites, as it is for us today.
This struggle is where the power of Advent enters.
In today’s culture that values immediate gratification (especially around the holidays), Advent gives us a radically countercultural chance to dwell on what it means to wait patiently for God, the fulfillment of our own individual prayers, and Christ’s return. During this time of prayer and Bible reading, as we look forward to Christmas, we can share in the ancient longing for the Messiah that the Jews fostered for so long. At the same time, we cultivate joy, peace, and a new understanding of God’s faithfulness in the midst of our present situations.
During the holiday season, finding time to observe Advent becomes even more important as we try to focus on the true meaning of Christmas amidst the demands and busy rush of our culture. Set aside time each Sunday (or even each day!) in the four weeks before Christmas to focus on God’s faithfulness in the past, present, and future. Read on for a few ideas on how!
One of the most time-honored ways of observing Advent, practiced by Christians for centuries, is through regular Scripture readings paired with the lighting of candles. Whether you’re with your family, roommates, or on your own, this is a meaningful, exciting Christmas tradition to start! Traditionally, an Advent wreath consists of a circle of pine or holly boughs with four candles and one candle in the middle. Each Sunday before you read Scripture and spend time in prayer, light the candles, beginning with one on the first Sunday and ending with all five on Christmas morning.
Lighting a candle is a simple but powerful act that represents light overcoming darkness. Try dimming the lights and spend some time reflecting on how Jesus came into a broken world on that dark night long ago, bringing hope with him. Finish your time with prayer, thanking God for his faithfulness.
You can make your own Advent candle display by grouping pillar candles or placing tealights in mason jars. Decorate to your taste and enjoy your arrangement all season long, letting it act as a daily reminder of God’s constant love and commitment whenever you walk by.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD
Advent is a time to journey through the greatest story ever told: the story of God promising a Savior and Jesus redeeming the world. There are some great online and print resources of daily and weekly readings during Advent candle-lighting, or you can simply read from Scripture. Here is one pattern to follow that focuses on the theme of waiting for God’s promises. Each Sunday features a reading from the Old Testament of ancient prophecies that God gave the nation of Israel, promising he would send a Messiah, and Christmas morning brings the one story that fulfilled all those promises.
In the following Sunday readings, God makes some incredible promises: hope in the midst of darkness, love in the midst of hate, joy in the midst of sorrow, peace in the midst of violence. As you read these verses, think about the areas in your life and in our world today that are in need of hope, love, joy, and peace.
First Sunday: Hope
Isaiah 9:2–7, Jeremiah 33:14–16
Second Sunday: Love
Third Sunday: Joy
Fourth Sunday: Peace
Christmas Morning: Christ
God has kept his promises to save the world! Light the last candle, and read the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, keeping in mind that this was the fulfillment of all the promises of God you have read over the course of Advent.
Pay special attention to the story of Simeon and Anna in verses 22–38. These were two devout Jewish people who had grown up reading and studying the prophecies of Isaiah, praying and hoping for decades that the Messiah would come and redeem their people. Anna had waited for 84 years! Imagine the joy they felt when they saw the baby Jesus, knowing that he signified the loving faithfulness of a God who may have seemed silent and distant during oppressive times. Today, we can share in their joy!
HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING
Music is a powerful part of Advent, because if anything can get us in the mood for Christmas, it’s a Christmas carol!
The first verses of Christmas carols are the most commonly sung. But what about the rest of the verses? For many of us, the first verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is familiar. But here is the powerful third verse: “Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace! / Hail the Sun of Righteousness! / Light and life to all He brings, / Risen with healing in His wings; / Mild He lays His glory by / Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give them second birth.”
This year, try looking up the lyrics to the second, third, fourth verses of your favorite traditional carols—or learn a new carol you haven’t heard before! In many cases, the later verses speak deeply into the significance of Christ’s coming, God’s love for the world, and the great hope we have for a future in heaven.
Here are some suggestions:
Joy to the World
Angels from the Realms of Glory
The First Noel
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O Come, All Ye Faithful
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
In the Bleak Midwinter
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Once in Royal David’s City
As With Gladness
Isaiah 9:2 reads, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” The Israelites walked for centuries in darkness as they waited for the Messiah. Today, surrounded by brokenness and injustice and pain, it often seems we are walking in a “land of deep darkness” as well.
But during the Christmas season (and really, all year long), we can still rejoice that Jesus’ presence and power are at work on earth now! If you are facing discouragement, stress, or other challenges, remember the many years the Israelites waited for God’s provision, and how their hope was not in vain. Today, we know God did fulfill his promise when Jesus came into the world, and we know God is still among us in the form of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:8 reads, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Christ came into the world as a baby, but now he lives in the world through us by the Holy Spirit.
The Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in God is in the Manger, “The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.” As the Israelites waited with expectation long ago, so we look forward to when our Messiah will return, as he promised in Luke 21:27-28: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”