Introduction to Advent

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By Claire Childress

Advent. The word has many meanings. It can mean arrival—a coming into place, view, or being, as in the advent of something. Winter perhaps, or baseball season. If that arrival is awaited, anticipated, Advent becomes a season of expectation, of preparation.

In Christianity, Advent is a season of the church year featuring the four Sundays moving toward Christmas, that grand celebration of the birth of Jesus. So in the church, Advent is the anticipation of something which already has occurred!

That event which already has happened begins the story of who we are. It is the advent of a new realm, a changed identity. To live it fully calls for preparation, a waiting period until the hour has come and time is all fulfilled.

These preparatory seasons—Advent before Christmas, Lent before Easter—in their quiet ways are at least as significant as the high holy days which they precede. They are times for pondering and for searching, for praying and for listening, yearning again to be ready for that which already has occurred.

In worship services during Advent, it is customary to light candles on an Advent wreath, one each Sunday, commonly symbolizing hope, peace, joy, and love. “Sometimes these moments,” according to Union Theological Seminary worship professor Claudio Carvalhaes, “can feel like a slapdash seasonal call to worship that celebrates the different shapes of family by reading quick words and lighting the candles sometime after the introit and before the opening hymn.” Instead, he suggests, what if we invited people to a deeper tradition of lament by naming those things which oppose the light of hope, peace, joy, and love. We name them and then claim the power of that light over them. We name oppression and violence, and claim the power of peace over them; we name illness and despair, and claim the power of hope over them. Our Advent preparation can become embodied as we light candles and offer prayers and take steps that the light might become real through us.

But lament belongs in Lent, doesn’t it? Certainly. But it has a home in Advent as well. For while we know what we anticipate already has occurred, we know more immediately it has not fully come about. Darkness remains—in every hungry child, each violent death in the streets, all immigrants hunted down, the impending death of our planet. In the journey through Advent to the awaiting light of Christmas, may the powers of hope, peace, joy, and love prevail.