December 3, 2023
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is one of our favorite seasons of the year. It’s the time we look forward to our most popular holiday: Christmas. And since Christmas is a celebration of the birth of God’s Son, it’s no wonder that Advent is the season we’re most likely to associate with hope.
Advent’s not mentioned in the Bible, of course. There’s almost nothing in the Bible about the church calendar, to be honest. In Matthew and Luke, there are stories about Jesus’ birth, but there’s no mention of when that might’ve been. So we can’t really claim Christmas is a biblical holiday. The only Christian holidays we can pinpoint by reading the Bible are Palm Sunday, Easter, the Ascension, and the Day of Pentecost. And so we call those holidays evangelical feasts—because they’re talked about in the evangels, or gospels.
Lent isn’t mentioned. But it’s symbolic of Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. And Advent isn’t even hinted at. But it probably came about relatively early in Christian history—probably well before the year 600 AD. Advent means coming, and it was originally a period of fasting. In fact, it was sometimes called St. Martin’s Lent, since it originally began on St. Martin’s Day (November 11). It wasn’t till later that it was shortened and began on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30). The fasting aspect of it was forgotten at some point, and it became more a season of penitence, so that people could reform their lives and cleanse their souls before Christmas Day.
Modern Advent begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day, and this year it’s the latest it can occur: December 3. Next year it’ll be the earliest it can occur: November 27. And most churches in our country observe it by lighting candles on an Advent wreath. The Advent wreath originated in Germany in the 1600’s, but it wasn’t quite the same as it is now. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that it began to look like our modern Advent wreath, and it finally reached American in the 1900’s. It’s such a universal custom in our churches that it’s hard to imagine that it’s as recent as it is.
Since Advent is for most of us a season of hope, it’s only natural that the First Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Hope. Hope and waiting go hand-in-hand. Remember, hoping and waiting are the same word in Spanish. And we see this mixture of hoping and waiting in the readings for Advent. Take today’s scripture passage from 1 Corinthians, for example. Here we find Paul and the Corinthians waiting for Christ—but not for the coming of the Baby Jesus. No, they were waiting for the second coming, or the Day of the Lord. Sadly, we’ve been taught to fear this day. But back then, it was the day in which they placed all their hope. This is why Paul said that early Christians eagerly waited for the return of the Lord Jesus.
It may not seem like the same thing. Actually, they might seem like opposite things—looking forward to the birth of the Jesus and eagerly awaiting the return of Christ—but the coming of the Lord is the coming of the Lord. The scripture readings during Advent are as likely to be about the end of time as they are about the beginning of Jesus’ life. Both the birth of the Christ Child and the second coming are about God breaking into human history, establishing a new set of values, and righting wrongs. Maybe that might help us see why the earliest Christians looked forward to the second coming with the same kind of hope with which we look forward to Christmas. Because the coming of the Lord is the coming of the Lord.
And when Paul wrote about this day that he thought might happen at any moment, he was upbeat and encouraging. This coming was something that overcame all divisions. It was something that was stronger than doubt and more powerful than sadness. The Corinthian church may have had a lot of problems (and Paul certainly talked about those in this letter), but here was something that outshone all those negative influences.
And isn’t that how we ought to see the coming that we celebrate in December of each year? Everybody knows and loves the first stanza of the song O Holy Night. But it’s the third stanza—the one that usually doesn’t get sung –that I love, for it speaks of the true nature of the Lord’s coming:
Truly he taught us to love one another;
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
and in his Name all oppression shall cease.
The literal translation from the original French says this:
The Redeemer has broken down every barrier.
Earth is free and the heavens are open.
He sees a brother where once there was only a slave,
and love unites all those in iron chains.
If we think of the second coming as Judgment Day, then perhaps we should think of the first coming—that is, Christmas—as Justice Day. In the birth of the Christ Child, God shows us that the least among us is the most important, a stable is more glorious than a palace, and simple shepherds are the emissaries of heaven.
Because of Christmas, a new light shines on our world, its people and places. As we wait—whether or not we’re eager—we need to look around us and know that there’s no place where Messiah cannot be found. There’s no place too insignificant or ugly or dirty. And there’s no person who cannot be used by God to play a critical rôle or to share and important message. Even the animals played their part in the Christmas story. And if Isaiah is to be believed, they’ll also show us the signs of the peaceable kingdom that is to come.
So as we move forward in time as another Christmas approaches, let’s forget the walls that separate, the issues that divide, and the borders we’re afraid to cross. Remember, Christ will keep us strong to the end so that we can be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited us—all of us—into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord [1 Cor. 1:8-9].
—©2023 Sam Greening