Editor’s note: “Matters of faith” is a column that provides local religious leaders a place to write about how their respective faiths provide hope, courage and strength in these modern times.
By the time you read this, a new church year will have started. It doesn’t follow the calendars you and I have in our homes. The Christian Church, especially in her more liturgical corners (such as the Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians), observe this little four-week season prior to Christmas, when Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
The church’s year begins on the Sunday closest to Nov. 30 — St. Andrew’s Day, Andrew the first of Jesus’ disciples — and runs through the four Sundays before Christmas. This year began on Dec. 3. The word advent means “coming,” and during this season Christians prepare not only to once again celebrate the Savior’s birth (His first coming) but also to prepare for His final coming on the Last Day, when He will come in judgment and gather to Himself all who believe in Him.
The history of Advent goes back to early medieval Europe (possibly mid-fifth century) and lasted anywhere from six to eight weeks. Over the course of time, Advent has taken on characteristics of preparation for Christmas, penitence over sin, and preparation for the Last Day. In post-Reformation Germany, Advent wreaths began to appear in Christian homes, often on mantles.
In its present form, it has four candles. Each Sunday a new candle is lit (one the first week, two the second, etc.), while a family devotion is read upon the lighting of the candle for the week. In most cases a larger, white candle was set (and lit on Christmas Day) in the middle of the wreath to mark the birth of Jesus. Many churches, especially Lutheran ones, now have Advent wreaths, too. Many families also use Advent calendars, marking down each day before Christmas, to teach their children that it’s not Christmas—yet!
Advent is a bit like Lent, which is held six weeks before Easter. Both are preparatory in nature; in Advent we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, while during Lent we prepare to celebrate His resurrection from the dead. Both are penitential in nature, as we spend more time intensely and intentionally reflecting on our own sinfulness and need for a Savior to have been born (Advent) and to have died and risen (Lent) for us.
In fact, the liturgical color for both of these seasons was violet for a long time, the color for repentance and royalty. In fact, the Biblical account of Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem (Matthew 21) is publicly read on the First Sunday in Advent and on Palm Sunday, the last Sunday in Lent. Today some churches use blue (likely royal blue) as the color for Advent, retaining its royalty aspect but differentiating it from Lent.
Advent is a time that doesn’t make a lot of sense to those outside of Christianity, and it even makes little sense to many within Christendom. Much like Pluto’s declassification as a planet, Advent has, at least unofficially, been de-emphasized as part of the Church year.
Unfortunately, it has become lost in the hustle and bustle that comes at this time of the calendar year. We find ourselves making beelines to buy presents for everyone on our lists. We dash from dinner to dinner at the homes of loved ones, or we may even make haste to host a feast or two (or more). We dispatch ourselves to programs at school or church, especially to those involving our children or those of our friends or relatives. And we dart from decorating the tree to decking the halls.
What happens to us as a result? We become exhausted, stressed and grumpy. At this time of the year, many people are sad, remembering loved ones who have died. There is so much in this world that causes us to take our eyes off the “Reason for the Season” — Jesus — that we forget what Christmas is all about, let alone Advent. Amid all our troubles and cares in this world, it’s hard for us to want to stop and talk about sin; we just want to be able to relax.
Which is why Advent is for you, so you can rest briefly from the troubles of this world, confess your sins, and receive God’s forgiveness — given you for the sake of His Son Jesus who was born to die (and rise again) for you, to take away all your sins. God still loves you. He still invites you to come to His house and receive His gifts, and not just at Christmas, but every Sunday — every Lord’s Day. He invites you into His house: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NKJV).
Indeed, Advent means “coming.” During Advent, you get to come into God’s house, where He prepares your heart and mind to again celebrate Jesus’ first coming on Christmas Day, and to eagerly look forward to His final coming on the Last Day, even now as He continually comes to you — in His house — through His Word.
Let the Advent wreath remind you as another candle is lit each week that Jesus’ coming is closer — for you. Come. Repent. Receive. Rest.
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.