Advent Sunday.

Four Sundays before Christmas, the advent season begins with Advent Sunday. That’d be today, 29 November 2020. (Next year it’ll be 28 November. 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 his frequent appearances here and there. Either we mean the first time around, when he was born in the year 7BC, which is what we celebrate with Christmas; or the second time around, in the future, to take possession of his kingdom.

Historically this has been the time for Christians to get ready for his coming. Which we do by getting ready for Christmas. But Christians, Evangelicals in particular, forget it’s also about getting ready for his second coming. We might tell ourselves we oughta always be ready for that event—and we oughta!—but advent’s when we particularly pay attention to the idea. He’s coming back, y’know. Could happen at any time.

Since Evangelicals have kinda lost sight of this tradition, or figure it’s a Catholic thing (as if Roman Catholics don’t likewise lose sight of this tradition), we kinda let popular culture redefine the season for us. And of course they prefer to promote Mammonism. Gotta buy stuff for Christmas! Gotta shop. Advent gets reduced to the advent calendars (which count down from 1 December instead of the ever-changing date of Advent Sunday) and the daily treat you get from the calendar each day before Christmas. I prefer chocolate, and I know a growing number of alcoholics who prefer wine. But because manufacturers don’t care to change the product every year, we get 25-day advent calendars even though this year there are 27 days. They owe us two chocolates!

But this is what happens when we let Mammonists define the Christmas season: Wrong focus and attitude, more humbug and hypocrisy, more Santa Claus and reindeer and snowmen, and less Jesus and good fruit and hope.

So ditch the secular “holiday season” and let’s celebrate advent. Joy to the world: The Lord is come!

The advent candles.

Yep, with the tradition come some practices. And lots of purple, ’cause advent has been historically color-coded in purple. (Ancient kings wore purple ’cause purple dye was expensive, and hey, the king is coming!) So that’s why liturgical churches decorate their priests and buildings in purple. Hope you like purple.

Primarily there’s the advent wreath. That’s a relatively new tradition—started by Lutherans, so no it’s not a Catholic thing, even though Catholics do it too. 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 a bit of a fire hazard.

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 to represent 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 pitch an idea. Sometimes it’s a traditional interpretation; sometimes it’s one they totally made up, ’cause they like their idea better than the traditional interpretation. But Christians get the idea these candles only mean what their favorite preachers say they do… and no they don’t. None of these meanings were formally declared by the Lutherans who invented advent wreaths. So none of them 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 aren’t a big fan of 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. (A real downer of an advent!)

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. Again, the meanings of the six candles vary. But one interpretation I’ve heard is faith, hope, love, peace, repentance, communion. More candles, so they can cover more bases.

But most of the advent-wreath resources point to that first list—hope, peace, joy, and love—so 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 a new 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… and probably get your chocolate out of the commercial advent calendar. I would suggest also having your container of wine from that advent calendar, but y’might forget to put out the advent calendar and let it burn through multiple days.

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

Get ready for the Lord!

Of course hewing too legalistically to advent-wreath themes (especially since there’s no 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 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 the 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.