Anticipating an event is as exciting (well, almost as exciting) as the event itself. "Getting ready for a party—choosing my dress, having my hair done, and guessing who the other guests will be—is as much fun as the party itself," said a young woman parishioner of mine. Many would say the same about planning a trip or a cruise. Please consider this article a commercial for rediscovering Advent as a season of anticipation—and waiting.
When Was Christmas?
The origins of Advent are cloudy—but so are those of Christmas. Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. His arrival was a given. What mattered were his words and works—especially, his death and resurrection. Every early Christian sermon mentioned these last two events but seldom referred to Christ's birth. To this day none of us knows the actual date of his arrival, although, thanks to the apostle John, we know exactly when he was crucified.
Christians eventually began celebrating Christ's birth to offset early the Docetist teaching that he only seemed to be human (cf. 1 John 4:2). But they were lost when trying to recapture the original date: December 25 was only a guess and was likely chosen so that the Christmas celebration could replace the pagan feast of the Solstice. Today some scholars think that, since shepherds were spending all night in the fields, it's more likely that Christ's birth took place in April.
Once the church began celebrating Christmas, it seemed natural to also set aside a time of preparation—similar to the season of Lent prior to Easter. For a long time Advent, like Lent, was observed with a somber atmosphere: penitence, fasting, and prohibition against marriages. (Some think Advent originally culminated in baptisms on Epiphany. That would explain the subdued celebration, needed by baptismal candidates to properly prepare themselves during these four weeks.) The color for Advent, quite naturally, was the same color as used for Lent: violet, the color of royalty and of humility—the proper response to this royal Newborn.
But Advent was soon used to focus also on Christ's promised return, the second Advent. Our best-known Advent hymn (and the oldest of those in current usage) comes from the fourteenth century and pleads for that return:
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel. . .
O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Learning How to Wait
Because the Christians of earlier centuries spent Advent in a subdued spirit of penitence, expectation, and anticipation, they were ready to celebrate once Christmas arrived. Nowadays, after enduring a period of frantic commercial, social, and (let's be honest enough to say it) extra church activities, we arrive at December 25th exhausted. The Feast of the Nativity is anticlimactic—and that's an obvious understatement.
In congregations I have pastored, I have often attempted to reintroduce the atmosphere of Advent anticipation, especially for Christ's return, through the use of one second-coming hymn per Sunday That is a modest reintroduction, to be sure, but it is a beginning. Any hymnal includes a selection of such hymns; less familiar hymns not found in one's hymnal can be sung to familiar tunes with texts printed in the bulletin (with any needed copyright permissions added).
I do recognize that to use Christmas hymns only on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Sundays following is to invite a wide-scale protest, and pastors with shepherds' hearts will attempt some balance. Although I would prefer to save those familiar carols until the 25th, I was helped by this recent statement from a parishioner: "We hear the Christmas songs in commercial contexts all month long during December; we need to hear them here also in church so we are reminded that the focus of the season is not commercial but spiritual."
To honor that need I share a suggestion from another parishioner: use one Christmas hymn/carol on the first Sunday of Advent (plus that second-coming hymn), two on the second Sunday, and so on. And, remember that it's not important to use all the stanzas of all the hymns: stanza 4 of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" makes a good sung prayer of confession, for example, and stanza 6 of "The First Noel" is a fine offertory response.
One can also find a few (although, regrettably, there are only a few) hymns that mention both Advents: "One Day When Heaven Was Filled with His Praises"; "Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding"; "Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne"; "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns"; and "Angels from the Realms of Glory." And there is a small collection of texts that build on the beautiful, twelfth-century statement by Peter of Blois, which speaks of three comings:
There are three comings of our Lord:
—the first in the flesh,
—the second in the soul,
—the third in the judgment.
The first coming was humble and
the second is mysterious and full
the third will be majestic
In his first, a lamb;
in his third, a lion;
in the one between the two,
the tenderest of friends.
Two such texts accompany this article.
A New Kind of Advent
Some of these suggestions may help you and your congregation become reacquainted with the often-forgotten Advent teaching about Christ's second coming. They may also add some anticipation to your Advent season and reduce the exhaustion often associated with December. Please have an Advent of quiet excitement and of waiting!
For Further Reading
Beck, Victor E. and Lindberg, Paul M.
A Book of Advent. Rock Island, IL:
Augustana Press, 1958.
Hartman, Olov. The Birth of God.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.
Poovey, W. A. The Days Before Christmas.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975.
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
(2nd Edition, 1974).
Godfrey Thring, 1864 (altered)
Jesus came, the heav'ns adoring,
came with peace from realms on high.
Jesus came for our redemption:
lowly came on earth to die.
Came in deep humility.
Jesus comes again in mercy
when our hearts are bowed with care.
Jesus comes again in answer
to an earnest, heartfelt prayer.
Comes to save us from despair.
Jesus comes in joy and sorrow—
shares alike our hopes and fears.
Jesus comes, whate'er befalls us:
glads our hearts and dries our tears.
Cheering e'en our failing years.
He will come on clouds triumphant
when the heav'ns shall pass away.
He will come again in glory;
let us then our worship pay.
Till the dawn of endless day.
Possible tunes: CWM RHONDDA, PICARDY
REJOICE, MY SOUL!
Victor E. Beck
Rejoice, my soul! The Savior came
the ancient promise to fulfill:
that God in mercy would redeem
lost sinners, for he loved them still.
Rejoice, my soul! The Savior comes
(whom time and space cannot contain)
and lives in humble hearts today
to gladden, strengthen, and sustain.
Rejoice, my soul, in sacred awe!
For he in might will come again,
the might of Truth, the might of
the Truth, the Love that judges men.
Possible tunes: PUER NOBIS, ROCKINGHAM, WINCHESTER NEW
Re-printed from A Book of Advent by Victor E. Beck and Paul M. Lindberg, copyright © 1958, Angustana Book Concern. Used by permission of Augsburg Fortress.