This coming Sunday will mark the beginning of Advent. Our church, as is true for many, will begin a month-long reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. We will light candles, sing great Advent hymns such as “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and use an Advent wreath to remind us of God’s life-giving presence in this world. We will read words from Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets. Eventually we will make our way to Luke and Matthew, where the Christmas story is told.
Through the years I have found the observance of Advent to be the most satisfying and fulfilling way to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Scriptures, the music, the visual symbols and the solemn rituals all work together to create a deep sense of gratitude for God’s gift to us.
The four Sundays are observed around four significant themes. The first is hope. Not the kind of hope we have when we buy a lottery ticket or when our team is 11-0 going into the big championship game. This is the big hope – the hope that God will take what is broken in our world and fix it. That the divine will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven.
The second theme of Advent is peace. We could use some peace in our world these days. And don’t forget, for Christians, Jesus bears the Prince of Peace as one of his titles. But it is not just the end of conflict to which the peace of Advent points. Peace also promises wholeness and healing. As we daily face a divided and contentious body politic, as fear and loathing fill the airwaves, as angry people shout angry words at other angry people, peace is something to long for.
The third theme of Advent is love. It’s hard to watch a sporting event anymore and not see someone in the stands holding up a hand-painted sign with John 3:16 written on it. “For God so loved the world.” The Advent season is the time of year to fully appreciate the significance of the idea that we are loved by God.
There are many in our world these days who have allowed the dark savagery of human cruelty to tempt them away from viewing God as benevolent, if existing at all. But for those who refuse to give up on the idea that God loves us and dreams for us a better world than the one we have made for ourselves, the third week of Advent becomes deeply important.
The fourth and final theme of Advent is joy. Joy is more than mere happiness. Joy is the deep and abiding sense of gratitude and jubilation that we experience as we celebrate God’s gift to us. Joy is our response to the notion that God is acting decisively in our favor in this world – even when it doesn’t look like it.
It seems to me that by observing the entire season of Advent, not just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the worshipping community makes a bold declaration that this is important business we are about. This is far more significant than simply encouraging retail outlets to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” This says to the world, “this is the beginning of the story that defines who I am and proclaims what I hope.”
I know you can’t get all that on a bumper sticker, but it really feels good to say it and believe.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.