It might still be nearly a month until Christmas Day itself, but all around us commercial Christmas is in full swing. Christmas music, Christmas adverts and Christmas specials are everywhere, demanding our attention and our money. But in the church calendar, this isn’t the Christmas season at all - that starts on Christmas Day. Instead this is the season of Advent - from the fourth Sunday before Christmas to Christmas Eve.
What’s the big deal? What could possibly be wrong with celebrating Christmas? Of course there’s nothing wrong with Christmas itself, but if we allow the season of Advent to be swallowed up by a commercial Christmas that starts in early November we lose something important. In fact, Advent is better than commercial Christmas for at least 3 reasons (look out for the song links - one for each reason):
Commercial Christmas is about us, Advent is about God
The commercial Christmas that has been all around us since at least the start of November is all about us. All about the need (and excuse) to treat ourselves - the advert in the coffee shop telling us ‘tis the season to spoil yourself’. All about the need to make sure we’re ready for the big day - the email reminder from Tesco in mid-November that Christmas delivery slots are now open. Commercial Christmas is all about us.
Advent is all about God. The word itself comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ meaning coming. The focus is on God and his coming to us - his past coming in the Incarnation as ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14) and his future coming when Jesus Christ returns to judge the world and put all things right.
And so observing Advent can help us break free of the focus on our desires and preparations so encouraged by our culture, and instead to align our hearts with the heart of the gospel - the grace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, come to set us free.
2. Commercial Christmas covers up the darkness, Advent faces up to the darkness
Commercial Christmas fundamentally offers us a distraction from the darkness in the world around us. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, after all - to give ourselves a break from facing reality. To drink enough at the work Christmas party that we forget how much we don’t like our job. To curl up in the warm with the fairy lights on and forget our troubles, forget the pain and suffering in the world outside our door.
Advent faces up to the darkness. As the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge puts it ‘Advent begins in the dark’. The colour for the season of advent is now purple, but originally it was black - it was just that the black hangings tended to fade to purple over time! That choice of colour reflects a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the darkness, even the hopelessness of the world and of humanity without God. Advent gives us the space to look at the world as it is and ask with the Psalmist ‘How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm 13:1) And it it as we ask that question, as we face up to the darkness, that we can see the true wonder of the gospel: ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’ (Isaiah 9:2). In the coming of Christ, and only in his coming, are death’s dark shadows put to flight.
3. Commercial Christmas give us hope for a season, Advent gives us hope that lasts
Commercial Christmas is designed to get us to focus our hopes and dreams on this year, this time, this Christmas season. Maybe if we prepare well enough, spend enough money, get everything right - Christmas will be perfect. Everyone will enjoy themselves. There’ll be no arguments, no disappointments, no regrets. But it doesn’t last - we get to January and the credit card bill lands and it’s still dark and wet.
Advent gives us hope that lasts. That is the great blessing of the dual focus of advent - we don’t just look back to Jesus’ first coming 2000 years ago, we look forward to his second coming. Advent can help us to set our eyes not ultimately on Christmas Day, but on that day when Jesus will return. When ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them...for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:6, 9). When ‘God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4).
As God’s people, it is not the hope for a Christmas that makes up for last year that is to fill our hearts and minds, but the cosmic and unshakable hope of a world redeemed, restored and blessed forever. And so we cry ‘Come, thou long expected Jesus’.
How can we “do” advent?
So how can we observe advent rather than just being sucked into commercial Christmas? This year as a church we’re providing everyone who wants one with a free advent devotional - daily bible readings and reflections to fix our eyes on Jesus during this season. Do grab one, and click here to request to join the WhatsApp group, and be encouraged by others and share reflections!
But the point isn’t just to spend 5 minutes each day ticking the ‘advent’ box and then throw ourselves back into the whirlwind of commercial Christmas, conformed to the pattern of this world. Instead we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) so that we live this advent season as a church that rests on the grace of God in Christ, leaves space for the reality of the darkness, and rejoices in the hope of a new creation.