How Advent Saved Christmas

I was in a store a few days ago and passed through the holiday aisle. This is always a mistake for me to do. Somewhere in the midst of stuffed Santas and faux fir garlands, my blood began to boil. I quickly became overwhelmed with frustration. Why? Because I hate Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the celebration of Christ’s birth or being able to see my family, but I have absolutely hated Christmas for pretty much all of my adult life. The stress, the materialism, the consumerism, the deception (ahem, Santa), and the overall empty, kitschy, humanist messages of our Western culture’s Christmas unsettle me, and very early I found the whole ordeal didn’t sit well with the faith in Christ the holiday is supposed to celebrate.

Then came Advent. It came in phases, really. I think I first heard the name in college. I went to a Methodist-affiliated school, and the Methodists tend to be a bit more liturgical than Baptists and other Protestants, but less than Anglicans and Lutherans. They keep the church calendar in their own way, and so I was introduced to Advent there. I didn’t really get the difference between “Advent” and the typical “Christmas season” immediately, however. It really wasn’t until I came to Louisville and became involved with Sojourn that Advent really took on meaning and life, now heightened by my study of the other great church traditions. It is a period of anticipation. It both looks back on the anticipation of the Israelites for the Messiah that was to come, and brings to mind the fact that we are still awaiting the Messiah, this time his second coming that will restore all things.

This is good news: he isn’t through with us. There’s still more goodness to bring into the world. The current brokenness of the world—the sin, pain, violence, and death—will be destroyed once and for all. It’s not a nice sentiment or a mere hope. It’s a promise. Advent is the waiting. Christmas is the assurance that the promise will be fulfilled.

The prophet Isaiah, who famously foretold of Christ’s first coming, spoke this of this still coming time also:

In the last days…
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
(Isaiah 2:2a, 4-5 NIV)

Our waiting is supposed to be active, not passive. We do not lull about, idly spending away the hours until Jesus makes everything right. No, we work toward that day. We “make disciples of all nations” until the Son of God appears again. In doing this, we bring more and more people into that New Creation reality. We also minister to the sick and those in need, so that we can work against the curse sin has wrought on the world. When we reflect on these things and let them be what Christmas is really about (what Christ was about in his ministry, after all), then the “Christmas” the world typically gives us fades away. It was the focus of Advent, the active waiting for the light of Christ in a dark world, that finally captured me and saved my perception of Christmas from its modern trappings.

The famous Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” is not a song primarily about the first coming of Christ, but the second. My favorite rendition of this song remains not the celebratory melody of George Frideric Handel but the one my friend Jamie Barnes wrote a few years back; it is this tune that perfectly captures the anticipatory longing of Advent for a day that is not yet here. Here is that version, performed by Jamie on the Sojourn Music album fittingly titled Advent Songs.

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