It is disappointing to see churches observe Advent but have no clue about its meaning or proper observation in the liturgy of the church. The Advent season sometimes seems to function simply as a countdown to Christmas Day, or worse, a silly exercise in let’s pretend that we are living in the days before Jesus came.
First, Advent and Christmas should not sentimentalized. The celebration of Christmas for Christians in the church must have nothing to do with sentimental reflections on the cuteness or innocence of infancy. What the church sees in the Nativity is not the sentimental picture which is accessible to unbelievers. In the descent of God to man, the church celebrates a reality which can be perceived by faith alone: the beginning of the divine action that would bring man back to God. The beginning, not the end.
There is no spiritual power for us in simply thinking about the baby Jesus. Important as it was that the Second Person of the Godhead take on our humanity and be born as a man, just thinking about baby Jesus and how sweet and nice he might have been has no spiritual power for us. It does not transform our lives. All the sappy poems that are read and all the cute little Christmas movies that kids watch have little or nothing to do with the church’s celebration of Advent and Christmas. There’s nothing necessarily evil or dangerous about them. They are simply not enough.
Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday party. We have greatly impoverished Advent and Christmas when all we have left is some vague sentimentalized commemoration of the baby Jesus. Pagans do this all the time. Nativity scenes here and there. Syrupy Christmas misic everywhere. This is the only thing left in American popular culture. Sentimental feelings about a baby. Christmas has been Disneyfied. The climax of the Disney idea of Christmas, remember, is those cute little animals huddled together around an indistinct warm glow. There is nothing left but that indistinct war glow, the mere feeling of niceness. There is more to the Christian faith than that. Again, there is no spiritual power in this stuff.
The word “advent" is derived from the Latin word adventus which means “coming” or “arrival." Advent is the time of year when we reflect upon the coming of Jesus Christ. Advent begins 40 days before Christmas day (or simply 4 weeks in the Western church). Remember, a period of forty days or forty years in the Scriptures symbolizes a time of testing and preparation (wilderness wanderings, the Ninevites had 40 days of Jonah’s preaching, Jesus tempted for 40 days and nights, etc.).
Advent, then, is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. But it is just here that so many churches are confused. We are not preparing for his first coming. That has already happened. The Son of God became man, suffered, died, rose again, and has ascended into heaven as Lord. Whatever Advent means for the church, it simply cannot be a time when we pray for his first coming. And there is no spiritual power in make-believe prayers about his first coming. Acting as if he hasn’t come, as if we were the generation waiting for his birth is not what Advent is all about. Let that sink in.
The Church of Jesus Christ has always insisted that it is not the birth of Christ by itself that we are to focus our attention on at Advent and Christmas. Instead, it is the birth of Jesus that causes us to mediate on the faithfulness of God in the past, present, and future. More than that, we are encouraged to prepare and pray for the coming of the Lord now.
The life and worship of the church is prayer. “My house shall be a house of prayer,” Jesus said. How could we pray for his first coming? We can't. How can we pray for what has already happened? He’s already come. So when we sing the Advent hymn “O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” we are not play-acting, as if we are Israelites living before the birth of Jesus. This hymn is a corporate prayer. We are the new Israel. And we are asking Jesus to come again and again to deliver us from sin and the curse. We use the language and imagry of his first coming, but the prayer is addressed to our faithful God in reference to our present mourning in lowly exile. All good Advent hymns are prayers.
It is especially imperative that we who live at the beginning of the 21th century, who are so comfortable, so well installed in this world, not lose the fervor of the hope for the world to come. The purpose of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany is regularly to reanimate that hope, that expectation, to move us again to pray for the coming of Jesus in our time. Embracing such a posture of prayer would help the church resist the sentimentalization of Christmas in America’s sappy civil religion.
So the theme of Advent is the coming of the kingdom, and the coming of Jesus Christ. We pray for him to come again in time and history as well as at the Last Day. And that’s why the readings in Advent focus not only on his first coming, but also on the second coming, and on all the various ways that Christ comes to us in history. He comes to deliver us from sin and the curse in many ways.
The traditional Advent lessons remind us that Christ first coming is a pledge of his second coming. We don’t yet see all things put under his feet. We don’t yet experience the fullness of the kingdom so we look for the age to come. Moreover, we not only want Jesus to come at the end of history and wrap things up, but we also want Jesus to come in history and deliver us from oppression, from hardship, deliver us from sin, deliver us from fools, from foolish or oppressive governments, and more. We want Jesus to come and give us blessing and put down our enemies. We want him to come and give us the Lord Supper and be specially present with us in the assembly of believers. These are all comings of Christ. And on Advent our attention is focused on the fact that our God is a faithful God who comes in answer to prayers of his people.