Making Advent Real
3 ways to cultivate a season of expectation in an age of instant gratification.
Christmas commercials have already been telling us what to buy for a few weeks now.
Apparently, the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is six days shorter this year, so retailers are going for the jugular. If you’re a parent, like I am, it’s basically the Toypocalypse.
So, how do we keep our focus on Christ in the torrent of materialism? Can we even celebrate the days of Advent anymore when so many other things seek to take our attention away from the entire reason this season exists? I think the trick is getting back to Advent: which is a time, not of receiving, but of expecting. It’s the time leading up to our celebration of God’s fulfillment of His ancient promise, during which we remember the centuries Israel spent in waiting.
Here are a few ways to focus on what should be the center of the Advent season.
Take time to time travel
Advent starts four weeks before Christmas day in the Western tradition and 40 days before Christmas in the Eastern tradition with some small variations on timing in the calendar year. It’s traditionally marked by fasting, prayer and repentance. The fasting is particularly notable because many feast days are largely proceeded by fasts in from the early days of the Church in order to prepare Christians for repentance and good works. Fasting is traditionally a time of almsgiving and caring for the needs of others, while also repenting and preparing one’s heart for the holy feast.
Advent is not just a countdown to Christmas, but it’s a journey across time. Imagine if you were a Jew, living in the first century and you knew the promised Messiah, the King of Kings, was arriving. You would be most likely be filling your mind each day with thoughts of repentance and preparation. If you knew the God of the universe would be on your very soil, you would probably call all your friends and tell them this news, preparing the biggest and best birthday party the world has ever seen. This is why the preparatory time before holy days became so important.
When we first start to see Christmas as day that is suspended in time and not just a past event we memorialize for sentimental reasons, we can in turn fill our Christian life with spiritual purpose. God came in the flesh, stepping from the outside of time and space to impact the past, present and future. In Romans 6:4, Paul not only writes and says that Christ died and rose again for us, but that we were buried with and raised into new life with Him. So, with each holy day, we are proclaiming that this is still our present reality.
Feel the rhythm
I think of both Lent and Advent as the rhythms of the body of Christ. Just as my body has a rhythm of breathing in and out every second, the Church has a rhythm of memorial to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a part of sustaining the body of Christ, just as breathing is a part of sustaining our human bodies.
Every day can quickly fill up with things to do. Especially during the holidays, there are parties to go to and people to visit. There are carols to be sung and Christmas trees to trim. It becomes nearly impossible to find the rhythm of the season. But maybe that’s because we try to dance to it alone. The rhythm can be found in the life of the Church. And for some of us, that may mean regularly attending an Advent service or coming together with friends or family to celebrate the coming King. Taking time every day to find ways to serve and give to others can also be a part of preparation.
Turn down the noise
Between the blaring Christmas music on every street corner and flashy commercials on the TV, Christmas season can become a noisy time of year. I’m all for “the Christmas Spirit,” but we often trade anticipation of Christ’s coming for anticipation of presents, hot cocoa and Christmas cookies. Our focus becomes about the elements of celebration rather than about the deliverer of our salvation.
We can continue to make each happy moment filled with joy for the one moment in history that matters by taking time to cut down. This may mean cleaning out our closets, giving away our time to help others or spending time in solitude with God.
The third point is probably the hardest thing for me to do myself because each moment I sit down and open the Psalms or start to pray, my mind instantly fills with thoughts of things I haven’t done. What helps me get past this is to confess my sins and thank Him for my blessings. Each year, Jewish people would offer up their sacrifices to God of repentance and thanksgiving and then they would celebrate with a big party. We can do the same every day and every year. Again, we see a continual rhythm.
Advent is not just a run up to Christmas. It’s the start where Christmas begins in our hearts, now and forever.