Monday, December 8, 2008

Advent reflection 3: What means this?

I had a foreign-language teacher in college who was not a native U.S. citizen; thus, her speech patterns sometimes didn’t fit our conventions. For example, when she would encounter a word or concept she didn’t know, she would ask, “What means this?”

I think many of us look at “Advent” and, internally, we ask, “What means this?”

Sure, a lot of us go around at this time of year reminding everyone that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and that we must “keep Christ in Christmas.” Some folks have
taken things a lot farther in attempting to define (or redefine) the “true” meaning of this season. And of course we can always give the default answer: that it’s all about Jesus.

But do we really get what it means? Probably not-- I certainly find myself learning more about it all the time.

“Advent” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “coming” or “arrival.” Thus, Advent is focused on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. It is a season of preparation, anticipation, and waiting. It has traditionally (and by traditionally I mean, in the church and for Christians, not in the traditions of Americans in the last 50 years) been a season of fasting, reflecting on the individual and corporate need for a Savior, and openly longing for the soon-coming return of Christ to reign forever.

Christmas (and Christmastide), on the other hand, is a time of celebration, of feasting, focusing on Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity as Emmanuel, “God with us.”

So it should make sense to us that Advent is distinct, and quite different, from Christmas. Historically, Christians have set Advent apart from Christmas in these ways (among others):
  • With an entirely different set of hymns for Advent from the carols of Christmas
  • By fasting throughout Advent, while anticipating the feasts (yes, multiple feasts) of Christmas
  • In decorating their homes for Christmas in the last days of Advent-- even traditionally on Christmas Eve (think of the scene in a Christmas Carol when Scrooge visits the family who, on Christmas Eve, is decorating their tree together)
  • By having worship services that were marked by more solemn and quiet tones than at other times, especially Christmas
Someone asked me the other day whether we couldn’t just sing “regular” Christmas carols during the Christmas season. Of course, I said-- when we get to Christmas. But just as we would think it out of place to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, or “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in mid-June, we ought to think it out of place to sing, “Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning” (from “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”) three Sundays before Christmas.

If you’ve been thinking, “What means this?” about Advent, a couple of good resources to learn more are
Ken Collins’ Web Site on the Season of Advent and the “All About Advent” page at

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