What is Advent?

by Andrew Raines

Throughout the year, Christians follow together the whole course of Jesus’ life from birth to ascension. We do so because we believe Christ’s life brings us life. If we stumble along in his footsteps, our lives will be changed for the better. 

So, Advent is the time when Christians prepare for sharing in Jesus’ birth. The name “Advent” is taken from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival.”

In fact, the season of Advent can be seen as a season for celebrating two different arrivals:

  1. Christ’s first arrival when he was born on the original Christmas Day (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-7), but also
  2. Christ’s second coming in glory to be our judge on the last day (2 Pet 3:11-14; 1 John 3:2-3).1

Advent is a custom that we can trace back at least to the 300s and 400s AD. The season goes from the fourth Sunday before December 25 until Christmas Eve—the “Twelve Days of Christmas” actually begin Christmas Day and extend until the Eve of Epiphany on January 5. (Real sticklers for Christian calendrical exactitude (read: pedants like me) will not put up their decorations until Christmas Eve and won’t take them down until at least Epiphany.) 

Of course, because of market forces or just the plain infectiousness of Christmas cheer, it’s easy to nevertheless let Christmas come a lot earlier than December 25. Yet, liturgical minutiae aside, it is good to hold ourselves back for a bit and allow ourselves to connect Israel’s millenia-long wait for the Messiah with our own and come to terms with how “the whole creation groans and suffers together until now” as it “eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:22, 19). We’re in pain, pining for a redeemer, and it’s good to let ourselves feel it. 

In this way, Advent embodies the present life of the Christian race. 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth exclaimed, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent!”2 We are always journeying between the Already and the Not Yet. Christ has already taken our humanity up into his divinity, but we have not yet come to our final consummation and bliss. 

Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, once pooh-poohed the intense self-denial which many believers at the time submitted to during Advent, quipping that Jesus might very well return while people were “drinking fine wine, walking on roses, and not praying a word.”3 Indeed, it is important to remember that our spiritual practices do not a whit to manipulate God’s disposition toward us. His “property is always to have mercy.”4 

Rather, our disciplines and contemplations are meant to make our hearts ready for receiving the Lord when he comes, so that he need not be turned away to the animal stalls again (Luke 2:7), so that the Son of Man might at last have a place to lay his head (Matt 8:20). Yet even with this qualification, we can’t place our trust in our own habits of grace. The Apostle Paul worried that his students in Galatia were falling into this trap and exhorted them, “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law rather than by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? …I fear for you that my work for you may have been in vain” (Galatians 3:2b-3; 4:11).

Thankfully, Christ’s coming doesn’t depend on us. Instead, Advent is about watching and waiting for God’s action breaking into our world. The proper Advent frame of mind is one of forward-looking, expectant nostalgia. Knowing that the eternal and immutable God, the source of all life and the ground of all being, has already revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, we now look out in hopeful expectation. And so, unbidden, Christ “goes himself to meet us and everywhere confronts us.”5 And thus we pray as the Church always has on this first Sunday of Advent, 

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

This Advent, we at UVA Bearings and Duke Crux invite you to walk with us as we imitate Christ. We sincerely believe that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”6 During these four weeks, join us as our writers share stories and reflections from their encounters with the God who has come and is coming.


Recommendations:

Follow UVA Bearings and Duke Crux’s Advent series!

Celebrate with an Advent wreath or calendar.

Follow along with the ancient readings appointed for the season.

Read from Fleming Rutledge’s Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).


Andrew Raines is a senior at Duke University studying History and Attic Greek.


Notes

  1. To learn more about how these two themes have been thought about in the past, see Mary Jane Haemig, “Sixteenth-Century Preachers on Advent as a Season of Proclamation or Preparation,” Lutheran Quarterly 16:2 (2002): 125-52.
  2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 322.
  3. Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, ed. John Lenker (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1995), vol. 1, 124.
  4. Prayer of Humble Access,” Book of Common Prayer. Of course, we may very well experience God’s mercy as judgment from time to time.
  5. Austin Farrer, “Advent I,” The Crown of the Year: Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament, (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1952).
  6. Pope Benedict XVI, “Deus Caritas Est,” December 24, 2005, http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est.html.

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