Advent Sunday.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 November 2022

Four Sundays before Christmas, the advent season begins with Advent Sunday. That’d be today, 27 November 2021. (Next year it’ll be 3 December. It moves.)

The word advent comes from the Latin advenire, “come to [someplace].” Who’s coming to where? That’d be Jesus, formally coming to earth. We’re not talking about the frequent appearances he makes here and there to various Christians and pre-Christians. It refers to the formal appearances: His first coming when he was born in the year 7BC, which is what we celebrate with Christmas; or the second time around in the future, when he takes possession of his kingdom.

Many Evangelicals have lost sight of this tradition, figuring it’s only a Catholic thing—as if Roman Catholics haven’t likewise lost sight of this tradition. In the United States we’ve permitted popular culture to define the Christmas season for us—and of course they prefer Mammonism. Gotta buy stuff for Christmas! Gotta buy decorations, and seasonal Christmas food and drinks, and go to Christmas parties and give Christmas gifts.

Popular culture reduces the advent season to advent calendars: Those 25-day calendars which count down from 1 December (not Advent Sunday, obviously) and every day you get a little piece of chocolate-flavored shortening, unless you splurged for good chocolate, or bought one of those advent calendars with different treats. Like the ones which consist of a daily bottle of wine—

Wine advent calendar. Sorta.
It actually turns out these bottles are table markers, but this photo’s been making the rounds of the internet described as an advent calendar. Still, you can easily find wine advent calendars on almost every wine-seller’s website. Pinterest

—which, if you drink it by yourself, probably means you’re an alcoholic. But the 25-day calendars are the only “advent” most Christians know about… and they’ve no idea they’ve been shorted four chocolates.

As for the rest of the Christmas season: Nobody’s getting ready for Jesus. We’re getting ready for Christmas. We’re getting ready for festivities and gift-giving. Wrong focus and attitude—meaning more humbug and hypocrisy, more Santa Claus and reindeer and snowmen, and less Jesus and good fruit and hope.

You see the problem. It’s why so many Christians themselves don’t care for Christmas either. Too much humbuggery. Too much fake sentiment. Too many feigned happy smiles when really they don’t like what so much of the “season” is about.

So lemme recommend an alternative: Let’s skip the Christmas season, and focus on the advent season. Let’s look to Jesus. He’s coming back, y’know. Could happen at any time.

The advent candles.

Yep, there are some traditional advent practices. Not many, so there’s lots of room to improvise.

First of all there’s the color scheme: Purple. Lots of purple. Liturgical churches historically color-code the advent season with purple, ’cause ancient kings wore purple—and hey, our King is coming! (Ancient purple dye was expensive, and often only the kings could afford it—or they hogged it for themselves and told everyone else to wear some other expensive color.) So if you’re not a big fan of red and green, that’s okay. Hope you like purple.

Then there’s the advent wreath. That’s a relatively new tradition, started by Lutherans in the 1600s. So you can tell your anti-Catholic friends it’s not a Catholic thing—even though Catholics started doing advent wreaths too in the 1920s. Ancient kings wore wreaths, which gets translated “crown” in most bibles, so that’s what all the Christmas wreaths are about. An advent wreath lies flat on a table, and has four candles in it, which represent the four Sundays before Christmas. Although there was this one German who made a really big wreath, put six little candles inbetween each of the four candles, and lit a new candle for each day before Christmas. That’s probably way too many candles, and your local fire department would discourage such behavior unless they’re electric candles.

Originally the candles were white, but lately they’ve been purple or pink. Really they can be any color—white, purple, pink, red, blue, striped like candy canes, whatever. Often there’s a fifth, a big white one, put in the center of the wreath; sometimes it’s used to light the others, or it represents Jesus and is only lit on Christmas.

Like I said, the four candles represent the four Sundays. But Christians have decided that’s just not good enough, so we’ve attached all sorts of other special meanings to them. I’ve heard preachers claim, “So here’s what each of the candles mean,” and tell you “their historical meaning.” And none of these “historical meanings” are true. Seriously. The Lutherans never formally declared the candles have any special meanings. None of the meanings we’ve invented are consistent across the churches.

Here are some of the meanings people claim for the candles:

  • Hope, peace, joy, love.
  • Hope, preparation, joy, love. (If you’re a bigger fan of the flurry of preparation than peace, I guess.)
  • Promise, prophecy, peace, adoration.
  • Hope of the people, the prophets, John the baptist, Jesus’s mother Mary.
  • Prophecy, the journey to Bethlehem, shepherds visiting, angels rejoicing.
  • Expectation, hope, joy, purity.
  • Three purple candles for penitence, one pink one for joy. (For those who figure we oughta be more penitent.)
  • Prophecy, faith, joy, peace.
  • Death, judgment, heaven, hell. (The dark Christian advent, I suppose.)

Advent in the Orthodox Church actually starts six weeks before Christmas, ’cause they fast before it Lent-style. So when they do advent wreaths, they have six candles for the six Sundays. Again, the meanings of the six candles vary. But one interpretation I’ve heard is faith, hope, love, peace, repentance, communion. More candles means they can cover more bases.

But most of the advent-wreath resources point to that first list—hope, peace, joy, and love. That’s the list you’ll find most often. Unless you’re Catholic; then it’s the one with Mary in it, because it just wouldn’t be Catholic without her.

Custom is to light another candle each Sunday, then have some sort of advent devotional time. Sometimes based on the candle’s theme—whatever theme you’ve assigned it—but sometimes it’s just generically on the idea of Jesus’s first or second advent.

There are two additional kinds of advent candles:

There’s the christingle, which is usually a candle shoved into an orange; sometimes decorated, sometimes not. It’s a Protestant custom, started by Moravians in the 1700s. It’s meant to represent Jesus as the light of the world. The candle represents the light, the orange represents the world, and the other decorations represent… well, our very human need to overdo things, I guess.

And there’s the single advent candle, which is a candle marked with the days of 1 December to 25 December. Each day you burn it down to the next day… then probably fetch your chocolate from the commercial advent calendar. I would suggest drinking your advent-calendar wine too, but y’might get too tipsy, forget to put out the advent candle, and let it burn through multiple days.

For those who are nervous about fire, there are always electric and glowstick alternatives.

Get ready for the Lord!

Of course hewing too legalistically to advent-wreath themes (especially since there’s no actual standard!), or ditching ’em in favor of commercial alternatives, are an irritating way to prep for Christmas. The point of advent is to be the antidote to all the rampant materialism.

We’re to focus on Jesus! Not social custom. Not even gift-giving. Not all the stuff we’re expected to do every single year. Jesus. We claim he’s the reason for the season; now it’s time to take this saying seriously, instead of using it as an excuse to browbeat clerks into telling us “Merry Christmas” like we prefer.

Part of getting ready for Jesus’s second advent is to stop being this sort of argumentative, frenzied, self-focused consumer. Start behaving like he’s coming back! ’Cause he is. Maybe not for the whole world just yet; he’s still trying to save everybody. But at some point you’re gonna die. As will I. As will everyone. So he’s coming for you personally. Are you ready?

Luke 12.35-48 NLT
35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks. 37 The servants who are ready and waiting for his return will be rewarded. I tell you the truth, he himself will seat them, put on an apron, and serve them as they sit and eat! 38 He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.
39 “Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would not permit his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”
41 Peter asked, “Lord, is that illustration just for us or for everyone?”
42 And the Lord replied, “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. 43 If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. 44 I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. 45 But what if the servant thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? 46 The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant in pieces and banish him with the unfaithful.
47 “And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. 48 But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.”

Do you know what our master expects of you? ’Cause he’s coming when we won’t expect.