The Meaning of Advent
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
"Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:4-5)
The above passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah is a very famous one. It speaks about the power and presence of God’s glory which transforms the world in every respect. No part of creation is left untouched by the presence of God in the incarnation. To put it simply, the coming of God into the world through Jesus Christ our Lord changes everything.
This is the profession which Christians have always made about the Second Coming of Jesus: His return will usher in the new Heaven and the new Earth; sin and death, evil and wrong will all come to an end, and our lives, and all that we know, will be changed. This is the Victory which Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection will bring to pass; this is the completion and perfection of God’s creation and its redemption; this is the very essence of the Kingdom of God.
What is often missed is that the Kingdom of God is not just something that is still to come. If God’s Kingdom is only found in our future – something that will come but is not yet here – then we are truly a people in darkness. The Kingdom of God is still to come, and yet is also already here, today, in the Church of Jesus Christ. To say that it is only something in the future, and not something also present in the Church today, is to deny that the Holy Spirit is active and present in the Body of Christ, the Church. While the Kingdom is neither perfect nor complete within the Church today, nevertheless we proclaim that the Church is a present-day foretaste and actual manifestation of the fully-formed coming Kingdom of God. I believe that we are, in a sense, living in a millennium-state even today, while also realizing that the millennium, and the millennial Kingdom of God, is also yet to come to full fruition at some point in the future.
The presence of God in the incarnation of Jesus, his current Real Presence with us in the Church, and in the coming return of Christ to judge the world, is all the essence of what Advent means.
"Huh? But I thought the season of Advent was a time of preparation for celebrating the Birth of Jesus!" It is, but it is also far more. If one looks at the readings which are appointed in the Lectionary for each of the four Sundays of Advent it becomes readily apparent that we begin the season with our attention focused upon our expectation for the Second Coming of Jesus. The readings deal with Jesus’ return, with the sudden appearance of "The King of Glory," and with our duty to "remain awake and watchful" for his return. These messages of expectation for the Second Coming, and for the full and perfect establishment of the Kingdom of God, then give way to scripture passages which focus our attention upon our Lord’s first coming, as a baby, born of a virgin, in Bethlehem of Judea. So, during the first part of Advent we focus upon Jesus’ return in clouds of glory, and upon the current and future presence of the Kingdom of God; during the last part of Advent we focus upon Jesus’ original coming.
The word "Advent" (in Latin adventus) actually has its origins in the pre-Christian Roman practice of holding a celebratory feast on the anniversary of an Emperor’s rise to power. It was the "coming-to-reign" celebration, or the party marking each year of the Emperor’s reign. As such, it was an obvious term for the early Christians to adopt in celebrating the coming of our God and King, Jesus Christ, into the world and into his present Kingdom, the Church.
At first it was simply a time of celebration just prior to Christmas which, from its inception in the 300s AD was a fairly minor feast day. By the 500s, however, Advent had grown into a period of 6 Sundays leading up to Christmas which, like Lent had as its focus a period of quiet, interior reflection and spiritual preparation. At the beginning of the seventh century, however, Pope Gregory had reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four, while also increasing their importance as a period of celebration and preparation not just for the birth of the Baby Jesus, but also for the Second Coming of Christ.
The color for clergy stoles, altar and pulpit paraments during Advent has historically been purple. Unlike the season of Lent, the purple of Advent is not that of penitence and forgiveness but, rather, the purple of royalty – of kingship and majesty. It reminds us that the birth of the Christ Child was the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, so purple is appropriate for use during this important season. Another color which has become favored among many Christians, and particularly over the past few years, has been the color blue; its adoption is intended to provide a visible reminder that Advent is not Lent, and that it should never be thought of as a time for mourning or penitence. Advent is, indeed, a time for preparation … but it is preparation for celebrating the arrival of our King, not for recognizing our culpability in His death.
During Advent one of the traditions which many enjoy, along with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and many other Protestants, is the lighting of the Advent wreath. The history of the Advent wreath is very ancient, indeed, and reaches back to pre-Christian Northern Europe and the winter-worship practices of the Scandinavians.
Prior to their conversion to Christianity, the Scandinavian people of Northern Europe practiced the lighting of winter-solstice candles as a form of worshipping the deity of light; in their prayers they called for the return of the warm sun and for the coming of spring. They placed these candles on a greenery-covered wheel to symbolize the rotating wheel of the earth and the change of seasons. This practice was very popular and, hence, very hard to stop even after they came to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And, so, rather than attempting to eradicate the practice the Church did the next best thing: it Christianized these wreaths into instruments for Christmas preparation. This wasn’t difficult to do, since Christ is proclaimed to be "the Light that came into the world" to drive away the darkness of sin and death and to shine forth truth and love. With each candle lit, the wreath helped to move the Church, Sunday by Sunday, toward the celebration of the nativity of the Christ Child, the true Light of the world.
The four candles on the Advent wreath stand for the four weeks of the season. Traditionally, three of these candles are purple and one is rose. The purple candles symbolize the royalty of the coming King and our need to pray, prepare and, like Mary, ponder the significance of His birth. The rose candle stands for celebration at reaching the mid-point of the Advent season (for it should be lit not on the 4th Sunday, as is sometimes done in Protestant Churches, but on the 3rd Sunday). During recent decades it has become more and more common to dispense with the use of a rose candle and have all four of them purple; this is my preference, for each Sunday of Advent should be a time of preparation and rejoicing.
In the center of the Advent wreath is the "Christ Candle," which is lit on Christmas Eve and remains, on the Altar, throughout the Christmas Season. It is a reminder that Jesus truly is the Light of the world, and the Light of our lives.
This Advent and Christmas, let us rejoice in the presence of the Light of our Lord Jesus Christ in our lives, and let us share that Light with all whom we meet!
© 2004 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.