by Scott James
God rest ye merry gentlemen—except for pastors and church leaders.
There’s traditionally no rest for you at Christmastime. Along with the usual ministerial duties, there are greens to be hung, shoeboxes to collect, Nativity-themed sermons to write, and maybe even an extra service to plan for Christmas Eve.
December can be a hectic blur of month for church leaders.
And yet, it’s precisely because of that frenzied schedule I would encourage you to consider leading your congregation to observe Advent. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept (or, like me, if you grew up thinking of it only in terms of wreaths and candles), Advent’s connection to Christmas may be unclear.
Taking its name from the Latin word adventus (“arrival”), Advent is the time of year when we look forward to the birth of Jesus Christ in a focused way. Dating back over 1,500 years, the season of Advent is part of the liturgical year, or Church calendar, observed in many Christian traditions.
More recently, even church traditions that have not historically kept the Church calendar have begun observing Advent as a part of the Christmas season. Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, Advent is intended to be a short season of spiritual preparation leading up to our celebration of the Christ’s Incarnation.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Advent is not a program to add; it’s a frame of mind to foster.[/epq-quote]Before you break out into a sweat over the idea of planning something else for your church’s December schedule, let me make one thing clear up front: What I’m advocating is not a program to add; it’s a frame of mind to foster.
The form varies, but the underlying themes of Advent—self-reflection, anticipation, faith in God’s promises, hope, and, ultimately, unbridled joy at the arrival of God’s priceless gift—are what make it such an edifying aspect of Christmas.
Specific practices should fit the context of your congregation and be driven by a desire to shepherd your flock toward a greater depth of appreciation for Christ, the newborn King. It doesn’t matter whether or not you light candles each Sunday, provide daily or weekly devotionals, or even consciously label what you’re doing as “Advent.”
All these things are good, but it’s possible to end up doing them just to keep up with the church down the street in our ever-increasing Christmas arms race.
Rather, let Advent be a time of preparation in your church, a beautiful mingling of spiritual rest and spiritual awakening. If that’s the goal, it becomes readily apparent that no amount of programming will accomplish it—only the Spirit of God working through the Word of God will transform us.
When you think about it, that’s the whole point of Christmas—when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Whatever the specifics of how this looks in your congregation, consider how helping them foster an Advent frame of mind might help them this Christmas.
At its heart, Advent asks us to do four things:
There are so many good things going on during the holidays, most of them involving food, family, and friends. Even with the best intentions of “keeping Christ in Christmas,” it’s easy to become distracted. We could all use some encouragement as we try to keep things in perspective.
Advent is a good reminder—a solid month’s worth—that it’s all about Jesus. It’s particularly helpful for families with young children, providing parents with a practical way to shepherd children’s hearts away from their six-page wish list and toward the great gift of Jesus’ birth.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Advent is an antidote to the type of Nativity tunnel vision that is so often engendered by our Christmas celebrations.[/epq-quote]Advent helps us focus on Christ, but there’s another way it helps us reorient during the Christmas season. Advent is an antidote to the type of Nativity tunnel vision that is so often engendered by our Christmas celebrations. Of course, the manger scene is the centerpiece of Christmas, but we should be careful not to compartmentalize that scene away from the rest of the story.
Baby Jesus didn’t appear on the scene from out of nowhere—He is the center of a much bigger story (e.g., Luke 24:27). His arrival was promised from the beginning and He’s the culmination of God’s eternal rescue plan. Advent is an opportunity to reorient the Christmas story within the larger context of redemptive history.
As we rehearse the backstory of God’s plan to send His Son into the world, Advent gives us a chance to consider our place within that story.
Rather than jumping straight into the celebratory nature of the holiday season, Advent asks us to reflect on the difficult question of why Jesus had to come in the first place. If we’re honest with ourselves, we cannot read Scripture’s narrative of a stumbling, rebellious people pursued by a loving and merciful God without seeing ourselves in the story.
This self-reflection brings us face to face with our own sin as the inciting reason for God’s humble Incarnation and eventual sacrifice.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Banking our hope, Advent is the spiritual preparation before the feast of Christmas.[/epq-quote]Amidst the frenetic pace of the holiday season, Advent prompts us to slow down to contemplate our sin, our great need for a Savior, and even the difficulty of waiting on the promises of God. It’s a time of fasting, pointing backward to our spiritual poverty and forward to our hopeful expectation of His coming (2 Cor 8:9).
This is how we prepare our hearts for Christmas—we allow the Spirit to till the soil of repentance that will one day yield a great harvest of joy. Banking our hope, Advent is the spiritual preparation before the feast of Christmas.
Christ has come—let the feast commence! Having walked through a season of preparation, the celebration on the other side of Advent is so much sweeter.
When Christmas Day finally arrives, we are steeped in expectation and our hearts are brim full with hope. Because of the redemptive themes we’ve considered all month, the announcement of Christ’s arrival leads to a natural outburst of joy. Rooted firmly in Christ, this is feasting from the heart, feasting as an act of spiritual warfare.
Christmas celebrates what happened two millennia ago, but there’s a future aspect to our joy as well. Jesus’ birth is yet another checkmark on God’s perfect track record of faithfulness. Christmas is proof that, no matter how long He decides to make us wait, God always keeps His promises. Looking forward, we know that the same God who kept His promise to save us has also promised to keep us (John 6:39).
Rejoice, because our salvation is secure in Him today, tomorrow, and forevermore. And that’s good news because we have important work to do before He returns.
Though I appreciate the slower pace of Advent, it is not merely a low-key version of Christmas. As it reorients our hearts on salvation in Christ and causes us to reflect on the seriousness of the sin for which He came to die, Advent beckons us to look at the needs of the world around us.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Advent is a rallying cry, fueling our mission and calling us into service on behalf of a world that desperately needs the joy of Christ.[/epq-quote]If the story of redemption is true, if unsurpassable peace in Christ is real, then we who have been saved have ambassadorial work to do. Advent is a rallying cry, fueling our mission and calling us into service on behalf of a world that desperately needs the joy of Christ.
As Advent rallies us to mission, it also rallies our hearts to persevere in faith. After generations of watching and waiting, the First Advent showed God’s people He is trustworthy. God promised, we waited, and Jesus came. Now, we live in a time in which we are awaiting the culminating promises of the Second Advent: Jesus will return to make all things new (John 14:3, Rev 21:5).
Friends, bank on this: God has promised, we are waiting, and Jesus will come. Advent helps prepare us to be faithful in the waiting.
SCOTT JAMES (@Scott_H_James) is a pediatric doctor, church elder, and author of The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent and the children’s book The Littlest Watchman: Watching and Waiting for the Very First Christmas.