What Is Advent?

What Is Advent?

© ExploreGod.com

Sure, you know of Christmas and Easter, but what about Advent?

“Advent” is a rather odd word; you don’t often hear it in everyday conversation. Some may use it to mean “onset,” as in the advent of an illness. Others know it only as an adjective before the word “calendar” during the holiday season.

But for Christians, Advent means much more.

The English word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” The season of Advent is a time when Christians focus on the coming of Christ, whose birth we celebrate in December.1

So there’s more to Advent than a crafty calendar?

There is. Christians observe Advent as a season of the church or liturgical year. This “year” includes the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and other holy days.

The Bible doesn’t prescribe these liturgical seasons, but Christians have been observing them as part of church tradition for centuries, beginning in the sixth or seventh centuries AD. The church year is shaped by the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, especially his birth, death, and resurrection.

How does Advent work?

Rarely exactly four weeks long, Advent can in fact vary in length from year to year. The season always begins four Sundays before Christmas (December 25), but since Christmas falls on a different day of the week each year, Advent can begin anywhere from November 27 to December 3. Advent is followed by twelve days of Christmas, culminating with the day of Epiphany.2 (And yes, the song is based on the tradition—not the other way around!)

A generation ago, you might have been hard-pressed to find evidence of Advent traditions outside of highly liturgical denominations, such as Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches. Today, however, many non-liturgical churches incorporate Advent traditions and observances into their holiday services.

What are Advent traditions like?

There is no hard-and-fast prescription for how to observe the Advent season correctly, but some traditions do exist. One of these is the Advent wreath. Many churches begin the Advent season by displaying a wreath with five candles—often four of the same size and one larger candle.

Each of the four candles, typically placed around the circumference of the wreath, commemorates themes of Advent related to expectation, hope, love, or joy. The fifth candle represents Christ and is usually placed in the center of the wreath. Every Sunday of Advent, the church lights one of the smaller candles before lighting the final candle—the Christ candle—on Christmas Day.

What happened to the red and green?

The colors related to Advent are those more commonly associated with Easter. Rather than the familiar reds and greens of secular Christmas celebrations, the colors of Advent are royal-blue or purple, pink, and white.

Why? Purple is usually associated with penitence, solemnity, and royalty. Purple is also the standard color for Lent, a season that emphasizes repentance, self-denial, and suffering. Pink signifies joy and happiness, common themes for the third week of Lent.

Some Protestant churches do not use purple during Advent in order to distinguish the season from Lent. They might instead choose royal-blue to represent the birth of the King of Kings, or bright blue to emphasize the heavens from which the angels proclaimed the Savior’s birth. Advent wreaths usually contain three purple or blue candles and one pink candle, with a white Christ candle in the center. The colors aren’t mandatory—or magic. But they are imbued with meaning.

How can I celebrate Advent?

Taking a few weeks to focus on the hope of Christ’s coming can make Christmas a more meaningful and joyful celebration. Pastor and author Mark Roberts confesses he did not observe Advent until adulthood, but he has grown to treasure its meaning: “The more I felt my yearning for God’s presence during Advent, the more I was thrilled with his coming to dwell among us in Jesus. The more I got in touch with my own need for a Savior, the more I rejoiced at the Savior’s birth.”3

If the church you attend observes Advent, pay careful attention to its themes within your own worship tradition. Even if your church does not formally observe Advent, you may hear its themes echoed in the music of the season, perhaps through hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” or “Joy to the World.”

Additionally, you can celebrate the Advent season with your family or a group of friends. You don’t need an “official” church leader on hand to do so! You may decide to incorporate a wreath and candles into your celebration, along with readings from the Bible and prayers. Any community can gather together each week to look toward the day of Jesus’ birth.

If you enjoy music, you might explore works that point to the coming of Christ, such as Bach’s Advent Cantatas, the first portion of Handel’s Messiah, or even a modern work like Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God.

Take advantage of some of the many wonderful devotional books available for the season. Some suggestions are Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas by various authors; God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie; and The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas by Ann Voskamp.

Finally, look for opportunities to share with others your personal need for the Lord Jesus Christ, the hope of men and nations. Consider the idea of waiting for a Savior in the many opportunities the holiday season affords for waiting—check-out lines, traffic jams, and children’s anticipation of vacation time and hoped-for gifts and parties.

Advent is meant to help us remember our need and longing for the Light of the World, the Savior who is Christ the Lord. For “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”4

  1. Actually, Christians refer to two advents of Christ: his first coming, which commenced with his birth in Bethlehem, and his second coming, which his followers believe will occur sometime in the future.
  2. The Day of Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ as God in the flesh. In Western Christianity, this generally focuses on the visit of the Magi to the newborn Jesus. Within Eastern Christianity, the celebration emphasizes Jesus’ baptism by John.
  3. Mark Roberts, Discovering Advent: How to Experience the Power of Waiting on God at Christmastime (Englewood, CO, Patheos Press, 2011), Kindle edition.
  4. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Isaiah 9:2.
  5. Photo Credit: Greg Schmigel / Stocksy.com.
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We All Wonder

We All Wonder

© ExploreGod.com

Wonder is a universal feeling. The next step is seeking truth.

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.Socrates

“You’re being unreasonable!” he cried. She recoiled, hurt by his accusation. That little phrase can be quite a cutting insult in today’s world.

In our world, reason is held in very high esteem; everything is subjected to the rule of reason. To earn the label of “truth,” things must pass scientific and mathematical tests of logic, consistency, and intellectual rigor. While emotion and intuition are not bad in themselves, they must not be allowed to interfere with our assessment of whether something is pragmatic, sustainable, and capable of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number.

This rational, utilitarian approach to things has spurred on great progress in medicine, transportation, communication, and technology. On the whole, that has been a good thing, but such advances have tended to suppress our spiritual needs for fellowship, intimacy, beauty, and purpose. Our physical needs and desires have been met—we have no lack of creature comforts—but what about those deeper questions that elude reason and cannot be expressed in terms of scientific statements and propositions?

The Mind and the Heart

While our mind asks whether God exists and whether our soul is immortal, our heart wonders and yearns and aches for a kind of meaning that can’t be seen or heard or touched. No matter how much our lives are improved by scientific progress, we cannot evade or erase that nagging sense that neither we nor our world is as it should be.

We ask with our mind, “Which religion is true?” or “What must I do to be saved?” but we wonder with our heart whether we have any value and whether God, even if he existed, would care about us. The cry of the heart is a cry for love and acceptance; it desires not philosophical answers but real—even divine—presence.

The mind wants to be taught; the heart wants to be embraced. The mind longs to know; the heart longs to be known. The mind demands a system; the heart yearns to return home.

True Home

Glimpses of that true home break through to us like sunbeams on a cloudy day. Even when we are not actively seeking such glimpses, they come to us unbidden. A melody from a song, the patterned wings of a butterfly, mist wrapped around a mountain top, the smile of a young child, a gymnast soaring through the air for her dismount, a flickering image from an old black-and-white film: each and all speak of a world where beauty is richer, more real, more lasting.

We feel that we have come from that world of beauty, and that, though we have been separated from it somehow, we still belong there. The French Revolution, Soviet Russia, Fascist Germany, Maoist China, Communist Cambodia: all tried to crush religion out of man and replace it with a secular utopia. They not only failed, they carried out horrible atrocities that killed the souls of their people.

Western democratic attempts at “utopia lite” have been less brutal, but they have left most westerners hungry for something more. For once our physical needs have been met, then we remember that there is another dimension to us that cannot be fed by food or possessions or entertainment. In a world of plenty, we remain dry and unfulfilled.

Not Enough

Whatever our minds may say, our hearts tell us that this world is not enough—that we were made for something that transcends time and space. That is why we turn to fantasy and magic and mysticism. We long for a voice from beyond nature to speak words of meaning and love. We crave a world that shimmers with glory, radiance, and holiness. We yearn, in short, for God to come to us and to be with us.

And yet, we are so made that mere fantasy is not enough. It must have its roots in history, in real life, if it is to transform us and give us hope. We want a story, but it must finally be a true story, a myth that becomes fact and renews the world.

But where are we to find such a thing? We start by departing from the realm of wonderment and launching ourselves into active exploration of God, of meaning and purpose, of truth, and of religion.

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Practicing the Presence

1 Kings 19:11-13

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I often search and long to know the presence of God, but the truth is that God’s presence is always with me, but it may be unveiled in different ways. Elijah was told to go to Mount Horeb for the LORD would appear to him there. Three events happened before the LORD spoke: a wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But when the gentle whisper came, Elijah immediately knew it was the LORD.

We live in a fast-paced world. Our day planners fill up with back to back meetings or appointments after work we rush to and from activities. It is a struggle to be still with the presence of God.

Sometimes it takes a loud, chaotic event to get our attention to the gentle whisper.

St. Francis De Sales writes: “Several times during the day, … ask yourself for a moment if you have your soul in your hands or if some passion or fit of anxiety has robbed you of it. … Quietly bring your soul back to the presence of God, subjecting all your affections and desires to the obedience and direction of his divine will.”

Something that keeps coming up through this study of practicing the presence is “rest” slowing down and obedience. In the book, Benedict’s Way, there was an observation of the word obedience in chapter 26. The word comes from the Latin root – to listen. Rest, listening, quiet, gentle, this leads us to a place of love and yielding to God’s way, and through that, God meets us and appears to us.

Adele Calhoun writes, in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, “We all live our lives in the presence of God. In fact, we cannot not live our lives in the presence of God.” … “Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives. Through many small pauses we begin a habit of turning our heart toward God. Through these acts of attention, we express our intention to live in union with Christ. Before we pick up the phone we might say, “Lord I am here. Help me listen.”


1 Peter 5:7

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7, NIV)

In the first pastoral letter of Peter, Peter addresses several issues. The letter’s primary goal is to address group of Christians who once participated in the social and cultural life of the communities around them. After following Christ, they became scrutinized and oppressed. They became strangers in a land they once knew. Peter encourages them and directs them in the way they ought to live.

Near the end, Peter writes an address to the leaders of the church, and he offers them instructions and encouragement. We know 1 Peter 5:7 fairly well. “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because [God] cares for you.” It has become a catchy phrase. If someone is feeling overwhelmed, we often tell them to simply look to God. We tell them to give their anxiety over to God, the Creator, because of the care for His people. Other translations use words like worries and cares instead of anxiety.

The interesting thing is the first word of verse 7. We understand the word cast today as heavily associated to fishing, and when a fisher casts their fishing rod into the water, they have a specific location in mind that they wish to plop their bait. But this takes time and this takes practice. We can apply this same principle to verse 7. When we cast our anxiety or concerns to God, God is always there ready. This is because, as the verse says, God cares for you. This type of casting might take time to perfect. We tend to get caught in a tree or the high grass when we cast our anxiety. We learn and practice when we build our relationship with God. Over time as we participate in community, worship, and pray, casting our anxiety, cares, and worries becomes easier. We have more accuracy, but through it all, we know that God cares for us. This is a blessed assurance!