As the days continue to get shorter and the hours of light fewer, the busyness picks up. Many people dread the holiday season, because it reminds them of loved ones who have died, family strife, the stresses of buying gifts and preparing meals. But something I love about Advent and Christmas services is that they slow us down. They make us take time out to meditate and think about what these seasons are really about. “Jesus is the reason for the season” may have become a trite, greeting-card platitude, but it tries to get at the importance of the “Christ” in “Christ-mass.” And Jesus is not only the reason for this season, He is the reason why there is anything at all, rather than nothing. Even the label “X-mas” cannot get away from Him. The letter “X” is really a Greek letter pronounced “kee.” It is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek [Cristovß].
We will have many opportunities for you to celebrate Jesus’ coming (and anticipate His coming again), as well as the Mass of Christ on December 24 and 25:
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We are now in the season of Advent, which means “coming.” During Advent, the 20-odd days prior to Christmas, we both celebrate a coming and remind ourselves that we are waiting for a coming. We are celebrating the first coming of our Lord in humility as the Son of a Virgin, but we are also waiting for His second coming in glory to judge the quick and the dead. Advent is a season of being roused by God’s Law to repentance and, hearing His Gospel, we watch in hope and holy fear for His coming in judgment. We do not, of course, fear that we will receive a judgment of damnation—though complacency and apathy can easily set in if we forget that there will be a judgment. We repent of our unfaithfulness and pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to recreate us in the image of our faithful Lord, Jesus. For all of these reasons, we need a full time of Advent. Already the day after Halloween, the ads are out for Christmas shopping. By the time we actually get to December 25, we are worn out and just ready for it all to be over. The way to a proper and fitting celebration of the Nativity of our Lord is by a proper and fitting preparation during Advent.
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It’s beginning to look a lot like…Advent. This year, December 1st begins the Christian Church’s yearly pilgrimage through the life of Jesus. And we are in no hurry; we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years (as far back as the fourth or fifth centuries). The problem is that the rest of the world is in a hurry. You’ve probably been seeing Christmas decorations and hearing carols in stores for at least a month. (I went in to both Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—which really should know better—right before Halloween, and they already had both songs and decorations assaulting my senses.) Everyone’s in a hurry, and the pressure to complete Christmas shopping—only a few shopping days left!—increases so that Thanksgiving day itself is not even safe from the sales. (Would the stores be open that day if no one was willing to buy?) And into the midst of this buying and selling, hurrying and decorating, comes the Church: not with Christmas carols and trees and strings of lights, but with Advent hymns and patient preparation and an expectant repentance and the hope of glory. The Church is often influenced by the culture in which she lives, but I suggest that this is one area where we may want to take a step back and consider carefully what Advent (which means “coming”) might have to teach us. The culture has influenced us to think that Advent is preparation for Christmas, when that has very little to do with the Word of God that we hear during Advent. In fact, for three of the four Sundays in Advent, we hear Gospel readings that take place after the birth of Jesus. Repentance and the return of Jesus in glory are the focus of Advent. Christians live between the incarnation (in-flesh-ment) of Jesus and His Second Coming; Jesus has already been born, and although we celebrate it on December 25 every year, our constant prayer is that of St. John: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). As the hymn has it, He will come “Not as of old a little child,/To bear and fight and die,/But crowned with glory like the sun/That lights the morning sky” (LSB 348:2). Actually, as with the Gospel readings, very few Advent hymns deal with the birth of Christ. Most of them, like this one, refer to His coming again.
So what can Advent teach us? It can teach us to slow down and to consider how we really stand before the Lord. He was born, lived, died, and rose again. He will come again. Where is our hope as Christians? What is Christmas really about? I encourage you to let Advent have its say. Whatever you may choose to do in your own homes during the first twenty-four days of December (Christmas actually begins when the sun goes down on December 24 and runs for a full twelve days), allow the Church to speak her own language during Advent. Do not hurry on to Christmas and rush past John the Baptizer and Isaiah and Mary and Elizabeth. Take time with the Advent hymns and Scriptures. They will all point you to the Son who came once in humble infant flesh, but who will come again as the glorious Lord of all creation to gather in His own people. Let them, during Advent, have their say for your sake and for the sake of the whole world in its heedless holiday rush.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”