By all accounts, 2020 has been a rough, rough year. It’s no wonder so many of us started getting our Christmas decorations out in October. We are craving joy and comfort. And since we are spending more time at home than usual, we long to bring that sense of peace into our lives that comes from a softly lit Christmas tree, the sound of carols, and the smell of cinnamon.
It has been said that we need Christmas now more than ever, and I get that. I do.
But I would also argue we need Advent now more than ever, too.
In the secular world, the Christmas season has traditionally commenced right after Thanksgiving. Although, through the influence of clever advisors, it seems we are urged to begin the season earlier and earlier each year. From a marketing standpoint, this makes sense. The more days there are in the “Christmas season,” the more days people are shopping. And while I’m not suggesting we don’t get our shopping done early or that we shun all Christmas fun until December, there is something to be said for giving Advent its proper due.
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas—which is usually the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Advent is also the beginning of the Christian year, according to the liturgical calendar, which is observed both by Catholics and by many Protestant denominations.
Advent is a time of waiting and of preparation.
While the rest of the world is focused on shopping, parties, and decorating, Christians have traditionally used these days before Christmas to prepare for the coming of Jesus—as a baby in the manger, into our hearts today, and at the end of time.
In many churches, scripture readings during Advent are focused around the theme of hopeful waiting. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus reminds us to be watchful and alert. Saint Paul encourages us as we wait on the coming of the Lord. We hear the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, and we read in the New Testament about John the Baptist and how he prepares the way for the Lord.
In our homes, we light the candles around our advent wreaths. Some families put up a Jesse tree, which tells the story of God’s relentless pursuit of us from creation until the birth of Christ. Many of us read a specific advent devotional book or say specific prayers. And while Advent is not a penitential season like Lent, in order to prepare for our celebration of Christmas and for Christ’s coming, Christians are encouraged to reflect on our lives during Advent and repent of those things that keep us from following God’s will.
In some families, most of the trappings of Christmas—decorating, listening to carols, hosting parties–are delayed until closer to the 24th. One point of this is to add to the sense of anticipation and, as a result, to add to the sense of joy when the big day finally arrives.
This time of waiting for Christmas also mimics our life as Christians. Because of Jesus, we have hope, and we have joy. But our hope is yet to be fulfilled, and our joy is not complete. By waiting to fully celebrate the coming of Jesus until Christmas, we are reminded that the joys and sufferings of this world are nothing compared to what is to come. Advent encourages us in hope and in perseverance.
That’s why this year we need Advent more than ever.
That isn’t to say we can’t go ahead and put up our trees or that we have to hold off on listening to our favorite Christmas playlist. We want and need to celebrate right now. But no amount of twinkle lights or Christmas music will really heal us. Advent is about our hope that Christ will lift us out of suffering and darkness. Christmas is the celebration that has He already lifted us by coming to live among us and that He will in finality when He comes again. Advent is about hope, and Christmas is about joy. We need both right now. And the better we prepare in hope, the better we will celebrate in joy.
The good news is that, although liturgically speaking, Christmas doesn’t begin until December 24, it also doesn’t end for 12 whole days when it wraps up on the Feast of the Epiphany. So, not only does following the Christian calendar and traditions give us time and space to prepare for the coming of Jesus, it gives us a Christmas that lasts more than just one day. That is something 2020 could definitely use.
This year we absolutely need Christmas more than ever. We need Christmas trees and holly and presents and fudge—lots and lots of fudge. But in our rush to seasonal joy, let’s not forget to prepare for our ultimate joy. May we all have a blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas!