The Power of Advent

When I was growing up, at this time of year I was preparing for Christmas by finding, making, or buying what I thought were great gifts for my family. One year, I wrapped up one of our rugs–one I knew my Mom liked–and gave it to her as a gift. I was surprised when she didn’t seem as pleased as I expected. Some years I planned what I thought was very clever mischief, like wrapping tiny gifts in huge boxes or nice gifts in shabby paper. Then, as now, I really liked my own jokes.

While I was planning gifts for my family, I was also tremendously curious about what was under the tree. My family didn’t have much, but we always got something nice for Christmas. And every year a box would arrive from my grandparents in Florida, full of small wrapped gifts we would arrange under the tree, shake, squeeze, shake some more, and guess at until we thought we couldn’t stand it anymore. Sometimes my sister and I actually couldn’t stand it, so we would tear a bit of the paper, sneak a peek, and then claim the cat was clawing at the presents again.

We decorated the house, sang carols in church for a few weeks, and sometimes marked the days with an Advent calendar. But we didn’t formally celebrate Advent, or even learn what it meant. Our specific church tradition was born in reaction to state-sponsored church in Europe and historically had a strong aversion to all things repetitious, prescribed, rote, liturgical, and highly formal. The concept of a church calendar was not part of our experience.

As an adult, I’ve enjoyed learning about some of the seasons on the historical church calendar, as well as practices common to many Christians through the centuries. I’ve especially enjoyed incorporating the observance of Advent into our family life each year as we prepare for Christmas. It has deepened my spiritual experience at this time of year and helped put some of the seasonal fervor in perspective. It has given me a framework for focusing on the meaning of Christmas, not only in December but all year. And it has helped to reveal some of what I carry in my heart.

Generically, the term “advent” means “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” Specifically as a season on the church calendar, Advent is a time of preparation, expectation, and waiting for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Many Christians use this time to reflect on ancient prophecies fulfilled by his birth and the events surrounding that event. Traditionally, we focus on the hope, love, peace, and joy his birth brought to the world and he brings to our hearts.

But as much as it is about expectation and preparation, I have found this season to be a time of revelation as well–and an opportunity for change.

While it sometimes might feel like a holier time, a special season, much of that feeling is manufactured by merchants and our own determination to maintain a festive mood. This may be a wonderful time of the year, but there is nothing truly magical or life-changing about these dates on the calendar.

But because of our tremendous focus during this time, Advent does have the power to reveal something about us. Whatever is the object of our expectation, preparation, and anticipation reveals what is in our hearts the rest of the year–generosity, greed, gluttony, love, judgment, perfectionism, deep sadness, disappointment, blame, shame, humility, joy. A propensity to blame bad behavior on the cat.

And because Advent can show us who we are, it also can give us an opportunity for change that will last all year.

In general, there’s nothing wrong with our celebrations–although we all know we need to get better at practicing moderation. There’s nothing wrong with anticipating time with family, thoughtful gifts, beautiful decorations, soul-stirring music, delicious food. But are they really worth settling for? a few hours of happiness after all that hype? Or should we expect something deeper, more lasting?

During that first Advent, which lasted thousands of years from the time God first mentioned a coming redeemer to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15) and hundreds of years after Isaiah’s prophecies, many people waited for the Messiah. But perhaps only a few actually expected him to come in their lifetime–and in the way that he did. Simeon, who was “eagerly waiting,” knew him the moment he saw him. The prophet Anna spread the word among “everyone who had been waiting expectantly” (Luke 2:36-38), as she had. Angelic visits had transformed the expectations of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph’s into certainty. And they certainly were changed by that first Christmas–as was the whole world. No shopping, only the simplest of decorations. But the music was magnificent.

What are you expecting this Advent? gifts? family visits? a nostalgic and romanticized retelling of the birth of a 2000-year-old perpetual baby?

What are you anticipating? more shopping, a great meal, lovely decorations, a few hours of peace? a “holy” feeling? an early morning and a good nap? a nice Christmas?

How about something more? Something that will last: the presence, here and now, of Immanuel, “God with us.” A Messiah who loves us as we are and has the power to change us into someone better.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.