In the rural church of my upbringing, we didn’t observe Advent. We jumped directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas. In our close-knit congregation, the non-negotiable liturgical dates on our church calendar other than Christmas and Easter were Church Conference after worship service on the first Sunday, Gospel Singing on the fourth Sunday night, Revival during the second full week in August, and Homecoming the last Sunday in July. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Passover, and Pentecost were nowhere to be found.

Later, as a young minister, I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent and my journey toward Christmas changed drastically. Today, I am convinced more than ever that as mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture, we need the reflective disciplines of Advent to keep us alert to stealth forces like materialism, busyness and greed–illusive grinches who would love to steal away the real message and gifts of the season–and replace them with superficial slogans and glamorous counterfeits.

For the Christian, the season of Advent is like a countdown to Christmas. For the past 35 years, Dick Clark has hosted or co-hosted a version of “New Year’s Rockin Eve,” a high-energy, star-studded countdown with nonstop entertainment until the ball is dropped in Times Square christening the beginning of the New Year. For a Christian, Advent is our progressive, contemplative countdown, our nonstop journey of anticipation that culminates when the Christ candle is lighted and the Christmas Star shines over the manger in Bethlehem.

This year in our church, we will count down the days until Christmas by re-visiting the prophets, singing the carols, re-reading the gospels, and lighting the candles that refuel our peace, hope, love, and joy. Then we will be better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph, to feel the labor pains of God, to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn, and to hear both the singing of angels and sobs of Rachel weeping.

If we dare to count down the days and recount the biblical stories from Advent to Christmas, we may find that we are more than ready to follow Christ from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

Barry Howard is senior minister at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla. His blog is here.

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