This year, I spent the first Sunday in Advent—a grey, drizzly, but unseasonably warm day—driving myself and three of my four children to see my elder daughter perform in a large Christmas extravaganza at her university, which is several hours from home.
In between each three-hour drive, we enjoyed the concert as part of an audience of approximately 1,700 fans. At times cajoled into the Christmas spirit, while at others hurled into a world of Christmas sounds and imagery replete with everything from angels to snowflakes and sleigh bells, we were thrilled by the massive multiple choir renditions of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.
Reflections upon the Advent Experience
I realized on the drive home—sporadically thinking my own thoughts along the dark, deserted stretches of highway while my children talked, sang, laughed, and yes, sometimes argued in the back seats—that this was the first time I had been part of such a large audience while listening to the “Hallelujah Chorus” being sung by hundreds of voices. We all stood, captivated; the awe that tangibly hovered over us as Handel’s gorgeous choral music burst and swelled like a mighty river of praise sweeping through what seemed to me to be a hushed, motionless ocean of people, moved me to tears.
Among many of the concert’s other highlights, we also enjoyed small group vocal and band ensembles, “Ave Maria” beautifully sung by the men’s chorale, “O Holy Night” performed by a lovely soloist, and a rousing Nigerian Carol, “Betelehemu,” sung by several combined choirs and accompanied by a spectacular African percussion ensemble.
This Homeschooling Mom’s Perspective
To top it all off, I was blessed to be there to hear my daughter’s piano duet performance. Of course, for this homeschooling mom, that was the sweetest moment of the evening. It was not majestic like the “Hallelujah Chorus,” nor pleasantly entertaining like the bluegrass ensemble or enchanting like the bell choirs. It was a moment when some twenty years of prayerfully homeschooling her in everything from algebra and Latin to literature, philosophy, worldview and the elements of our Christian faith, as well as facilitating her music lessons and performance opportunities, and then ultimately sending her into the world to use the talents God gave her to live as He would ordain it, suddenly and poignantly came together: I saw her artistry and skill, creativity and grace, her character in her willingness to both serve and to lead, and I was amazed by what God has wrought in her life.
I have to admit, though, that despite all the joy and blessing of that experience, I felt a bit odd that Sunday. I now realize why: this is not how I would normally spend the first Sunday in Advent. More than likely, in any given year, on that day you would probably find me with my family at worship. We would enjoy a time of fellowship around our family table after the service. Finally, we would gather to perform what has become one of our traditional Advent observances: the evening lighting of an Advent wreath accompanied by a devotion, and perhaps, given the season of our lives and the ages of our children, some Jesse Tree readings or a Christmas story as well.
There was something glorious about that concert—and it was, of course, a rare treat to watch my daughter sing and play at such a celebratory event and then catch a brief moment of fellowship with her afterwards over dinner before the drive home—but what I learned from this out-of-the-ordinary way of beginning Advent was that I have become accustomed to ushering Advent into my year and into my home in much less extravagant, much more familiar, ways…ways that focus my mind and open my heart to its wonders as well as its lessons.
Familiar Wonders of Advent
The wonders of Advent are familiar: anticipation grows with every decoration that is displayed, from the front door wreath to the Christmas Tree; favorite carols awaken the child within; expectations of sharing fellowship with friends and family add warmth and excitement; delicious meals tempt; pleasant surprises and thoughtful gifts delight; and for the Christian, the inescapable experience of blessing, joy, and peace that we know have been given to us through the birth of our Lord and Savior fills us.
The glittering lights, glistening decorations, rich foods, finely wrapped gifts, festive music and colors…all these plainly testify to the Wonder that is Christ Jesus. They saturate Advent with their presence. They evoke His Presence.
Lessons of Advent
The lessons of Advent teach, ultimately, about the meaning and significance of its culminating moment in the birth of the baby Jesus: Christmas. However, these lessons may not be as much in the forefront of our minds as the wonder of it is. G. K. Chesterton once wrote:
The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why. – G.K. Chesterton, Generally Speaking
Advent as a Microcosm of Christian Life
Chesterton is right. Many who become caught up in the wonders of Christmas may not consciously realize the profound truths it contains, which can be reflected upon to great benefit during Advent. That is why Advent is a perfect time for Christians to teach and model for their children some important lessons about their faith, and about living lives of faith: the season of Advent is a microcosm of what all of one’s life as a Christian should be—a time of bountiful celebration, diligent and thoughtful preparation, and eager anticipation of glory to come. As with all things that come from the hand of God, the wonders and the lessons intertwine.
The Threefold Experience of Advent
So let us consider what Advent is, and what it can teach us. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus. It means, simply, ‘coming’ or ‘arrival.’ In the Christian church year, it refers to the time awaiting ‘the coming’ of Christ. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and culminates at Christmas, His birthday. Like the triune God whom it honors, it encompasses a threefold experience of time: the past, the present, and the future. It recalls and makes plans to celebrate the past Incarnation (the coming of God to earth in human form), it reflects upon the present Indwelling (the coming of God into the hearts, lives, and actions of those who believe in Him), and it eagerly anticipates the future Epiphaneia (a simple translation of this Greek word would be ‘appearing’ and it is used to indicate Christ’s Second Coming, when He will return as King of the New Heaven and New Earth). For Christians through the millennia, it has been a time of personal reflection, growth, repentance, and joy-filled expectation.
Lessons from Christmas Carols
One of my favorite Christmas carols, the 16th century French song “Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella!” perfectly captures this synthesis in Advent. The lyrics of the first stanza exhort:
Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella
Bring a torch, to the cradle run!
It is Jesus good folk of the village;
Christ is born and Mary’s calling.
This song pulls together history, Christmas theology, and eschatology because it evokes the birth of the baby Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem, calls us to celebrate and proclaim it joyously in the here and now even though we are living centuries later, and exhorts us to take to heart the verses in the Bible which instruct us to be spiritually prepared and ready for Christ’s final return (for example, Luke 12:35: “Be dressed and ready for service and keep your lamps burning.” See also Matthew 25:5-13).
The cause for celebration of the Incarnation needs no explanation. And of course, for Christians, the expectation of the glory of the Second Coming—the Epiphaneia—goes without saying. So, let us focus on the here and now moments of the experience of His Indwelling, noticing how even those who do not observe Advent are, unbeknownst to themselves, being given a glimpse—indeed, a vital experience—of the present Kingdom during Advent and at Christmas. God incarnates and generates all that is true, good, and beautiful, so here is a very simple view into how humanity tastes the Kingdom within and, although it is not always obvious, is patently all around us during Advent:
- The spectacular and glorious decorations, music, and clothing all shout aloud: “Beauty!”
- The generosity, good cheer, and relishing of the ‘good life’ in rich food, drink, and other pleasures declare: “Goodness!”
- The historical and religious events celebrated, even by so many non-Christians all over the world, unavoidably proclaim: “Truth!”
Beauty, goodness, and truth are manifestly incarnated in our daily lives during Advent, a time set apart for extraordinary quantities of them all. As Christians, we can therefore intentionally incarnate, through His Indwelling, beauty, goodness, and truth for those around us, who—even though they may not be believers—will yearn after what we celebrate precisely because it embodies those things after which all men (since they are created in the image of God) seek.
Lessons from Christmas Decorations and Traditions
Indeed, the very popularity of Christmas all over the world testifies to this, even amongst those who are not believers in countries actively hostile to Christianity. As a teenager, for example, I recall a long drive into the center of Tehran, Iran at the height of the Islamic Revolution. We were delivering a Christmas tree—strapped, for all to see and recognize, on the top of my father’s car—to old friends who could not get their own tree that year. Even then, in the depths of upheaval and violence, through dark and dangerous streets, Christmas was alive and well; no one troubled us about the tree, though armed men were everywhere.
Thus, during Advent our opportunity to intentionally incarnate beauty, goodness and truth is geometrically magnified. Furthermore, for our own families, and especially for our children, we can take the lessons of Advent and model the essence of the Christian walk through various Advent family liturgies such as Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, and Jesse Trees with a daily focus on: Christ Himself, His gifts to us, praise and worship, preparation of our hearts, minds, and bodies, and intentional recollection that through our daily simple rituals our priorities and true beliefs are manifestly revealed. May they always be overflowing with His Presence: the babe in the manger, the crucified and resurrected Christ, and the King of kings and Lord of lords.
In our Advent rituals, therefore, Christians can remember the Incarnation—and anticipate the Epiphaneia—as we appreciate the meaning of the words of the poet Christina Rossetti:
Behold the Bridegroom cometh: go we out
With lamps ablaze and garlands roundabout
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.
Proclaiming Christ in the Here and Now
Proclaiming Christ in the here and now, in the Indwelling, we may echo what Augustine of Hippo has written:
Even so, it was not enough for God to send his son to point out the way—he made his Son the way itself, so that we could go along our journey guided by him as he walks along his own way. –God’s Promises are Given through His Son (Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 109)
We may affirm that we must keep plentiful oil in our lamps in readiness to serve Him and greet Him at His arrival, because He is, as His beloved disciple John wrote, the Light of the World:
[I]n ipso vita erat et vita erat lux hominum (In Him was life and his life was the light of men)
et lux in tenebris lucet (And the light shineth in the darkness) –John 1:4-5 (Latin Vulgate with NIV translation)
Reclaiming our path, we may heed the words of the rock upon which He built His church:
Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. –1 Peter 1:13 (NIV)
It is for these reasons that we may strive to observe Advent with our families, and to teach and model for our children the potency of Advent that reflects the Triune God and His redemption offered to us through Christ’s Incarnation, Indwelling, and Epiphaneia. These are the richest Advent lessons.