Originally, Advent was the season before Epiphany (January 6) which is when most Christian denominations in the West mark the adoration of Jesus’ birth by the three wise men (Magi) or in the East, His baptism in the Jordan river. It originally started out as a time of fasting and self-reflection. It became a time to prepare for Christ’s second coming as well as reflecting on His first. Preparing for the second coming made it a solemn occasion since the second coming was also seen as “Judgement Day”. That all changed in the mid-300s. Constantine the Great declared Jesus’ birthday a national holiday and Julius, bishop of Rome, set the date as December 25. Eventually, the Western church stopped requiring fasting for Advent. There are tons of great articles online (ChristianHistory.com – Happy(?) Advent) and shows on the History Channel that reveal that the history of Christmas has changed substantially over the centuries.
As a child, I loved Christmas because of all of the celebrations, lights, and gifts. Then later, as an adult, I became disgusted with the commercialism or consumerism that seemed to take over the holiday. I realized that Christmas was more about profits and losses and me, me, me than it was about the birth of Christ. Once I learned a little history about Christmas, I realized that Christians actually stole it (and borrowed some of the folklore and traditions) from the Pagans who were already partying every winter to celebrate the Winter Solstice. I guess we had to compete and show that we partied too. So now I don’t get as frustrated with the traffic or shopping crowds. And when I hear someone say “the reason for the season” I know they haven’t done their homework. There are tons of reasons and history behind celebrating and exchanging gifts during the Winter – and for more than just Christians. But for me, I’ve decided it is what we make of it.
I want to really dive into Advent this year and discover its history and see how I can participate in it or celebrate it or study it – for no other reason than millions of people all over the world are showing up to church services over the next 4 weeks with purple and rose colored candles in their Advent Wreaths (or some who use only white ones), while a cute little family has a child light the candles according to over 1600 years of tradition. I doubt that most of those millions could tell you much about what’s up with that tradition (uh oh, that was a pretty judgmental thing for me to say). I just always thought it was a time that marked the four weeks prior to Christmas where Dad read something boring to us and then we sang a few Christmas hymns. It made the family happy and was a small price to pay for a chance at better gifts on Christmas day – or better yet – a chance at getting to open a present early. Dad always used to read stuff to us during Advent written by a guy named Martin Luther. I had heard of him and thought he had something to do with civil rights. It was much later in life that I realized he was the Martin Luther behind the whole Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s and that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the civil rights advocate from the 1950’s who was just named after him. The book dad read from was called Martin Luther’s Christmas Book. I just bought it and doubt it will be boring to me now.
I feel like an idiot because I also knew there was a Christian denomination called Lutheran. It just never clicked with me that it was from the Martin Luther of the 1500s. It was the German Lutherans who began to physically mark the days of Advent with an Advent Calendar – using chalk marks on a door and eventually candles. Apparently, the first known public Advent Wreath was hung in a prayer hall in Hamburg, Germany in 1839 although it had supposedly been a private family practice since the 1600s.
I’m somewhat ashamed to have taken this many years to care enough about it to really try and understand it. On the other hand, I’m completely stoked to discover what its all about – at least to me. And I plan to share it with you. I’ve never been good about just accepting what someone tells me. I have to dig around and check it out. If you’re that way too, but don’t have time, I hope my digging around proves to be useful to you.
The word advent comes from the Latin word “adventus” meaning “coming”. The latin word is a translation of the Greek word “parousia” which is commonly used in reference to the Second Coming of Christ. The prevalent Christian practice is that the season or time of Advent serves as a dual reminder of the original waiting that the Hebrews did for the first coming of Christ – as well as the waiting today that takes place for the second coming.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the first candle is lit. It is usually purple and is traditionally the candle of Expectation or Hope. Throughout the Old Testament, we see that God’s people were abused by kings, led astray by self-centered prophets, and lulled into apathy by half-hearted religious leaders. This created a longing among some for God to raise up a new king. So God revealed to some prophets that He would not leave His people without a true shepherd. Christ came. Now, the world is still not quite “as it is in heaven”, so we wait with hope for the Second Advent – the second coming – when things will be “on earth as it is in heaven” – or what I believe will be when earth and heaven become one. One way I came to understand or believe that was through reading N.T. Wright’s newest book, Surprised by Hope.
But I believe that Advent is also about hope for today – for what God is doing right now right here through Christ who is with us each day as the Holy Spirit. I see God at work everywhere and it is amazing and exciting.
I was with my 19-year-old niece, Jess, this weekend for Thanksgiving. She told me about all she had been learning in a social work course she is taking in college. The teacher is also the CEO of a boys home and instead of lecturing everyday, he takes the class to various social work related organizations to experience first hand the work being done by social workers (or by God through the body of Christ who are the social workers). Hearing her talk about how she wanted to go into some type of social work as a career was inspiring. It took me over 40 years to realize that there are a lot of people who through no fault of their own need help. I’m hopeful that she and many others like her are learning it so much sooner and doing something about it.
I also met Jess’ friend this weekend, a 19-year-old girl named Amy who is raising her 5-year-old brother, Nathaniel, all on her own – all while she works and goes to college to pursue a career in social work or counseling of some kind. She works harder and is smarter than almost anyone I’ve ever met. She does it mostly so that Nathaniel will have a better chance and a better life than she has had. She gives me tremendous hope.
I see hope though what God is doing in these and many other people’s lives. I also see what God is doing to bring hope into my own daily life. One thing is the encouragement to write more notes like this one. Another is that after two and a half years of no regular employment or income (and various failed attempts at entrepreneurship), I now have several awesome sources of income for awesome work both as a software developer and marketing consultant. Most importantly (at least for today), I see the excitement and hope of figuring out what it means to “do church” or “belong to a church” or “choose a church” – and whether or not we can faithfully serve or attend multiple churches and what that means.
These notes stir up great conversation (which I invite and encourage even if it is to completely disagree with me).
Another major way God is working in my life and giving me hope is financially. I’ve done well financially my entire life – that is, in worldly terms. But I don’t feel like I’ve ever been a good steward of the money I’ve made. I mostly just pissed it away on things I probably didn’t need – mostly. I’m not there yet, and don’t know if I’ll ever be, but I’m making great steps toward living within my means and when spending money on anything, trying to make sure it is something God would be fine with knowing that it is His money. With the new jobs and sources of income now, I’m sure it will be difficult. Will I buy that cool 52″ HDTV now? Will I finally buy a new vehicle and try to justify it since my 1995 Jeep just passed 190,000 miles? Will I keep eating out every meal and eating too much? I hope not, but the odds are against me.
So yeah. This week is the first week of Advent – a week of hope and expectation. I don’t think I’ve ever been more hopeful. I hope the same is true for you too!