Advent is not Christmas! If you grew up in more liturgical circles you know this. If however you grew up in a non-liturgical church like I did this might surprise you. Stores already have Christmas sales and churches are singing Christmas carols, but the season of Advent is not Christmas. It is a preparation for Christmas. The official “Christmas season” in the church begins on Christmas Eve and ends Epiphany Sunday which was traditionally on January 6th but is now observed the Sunday after January 1st.
If Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s arrival then Advent is hopefully waiting by the door for his coming. Advent keeps Christians waiting by the phone to be the first to hear the good news that he has come.
What is Advent about?
For those of you who are new to this tradition let me introduce you to this beautiful Christian celebration that dates back to the fourth century! Advent can take on many forms and is observed by most liturgical churches. The timeless meaning and message of this season is what keeps it relevant and is why we celebrate it.
Advent is a Latin word that simply means, “Come” or to “Arrive.” Advent celebrates the arrival of Christ! During this season we both look backwards and forwards. We remember the birth of the Prince of Peace in a manger and anticipate the return of King Jesus. This anticipation leads us to prepare our hearts for his arrival and compels us to rejoice. We know Christ is coming to bring salvation and peace to all who are his.
How do you celebrate Advent?
Advent is celebrated primarily through the lighting of four Advent candles inside an evergreen wreath. There are four candles arranged in a circle, the first three are purple, and the fourth is rose. Some churches (mostly those in the Anglican tradition) use blue instead, other groups use red. Regardless of the color each week everything gets a little brighter as a new candle is lit every Sunday.
The four candles are a reminder of the 400 years of darkness where God was silent between the Old and New Testaments. We remember that darkness and anticipate the dawning light of Christ with the four weeks of candle lighting. The fifth or middle candle celebrates Christ, the centerpiece of history and the light of the world as described in John 1.
What do the candles mean?
Each of candles have unique meanings associated with them. The meanings can vary from church to church, but have unifying ideas. Below is a quick summary of each week.
We celebrate “Hope” with the first candle.
Our hope is that Christ will save us from the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into, and bring us to a better place with him for eternity. This candle allows us to reflect on our helpless estate and remember that while we were still sinners Christ came for us. Some churches call this the “Prophecy” candle which makes sense. It was the prophets who kept hope alive for the people of God.
The second candle represents “Peace.”
The permanent peace that Christ will bring as King of Kings and Lord of Lords and the tender peace the baby Christ child brought into the world when he was born. This candle can also be called the “Bethlehem” candle. Micah 5:2 prophesied that a ruler would come from Bethlehem. This ruler was Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.
The third candle helps us to remember “Love.”
Love is what set this whole season in motion. John 3:16 tells us, ”God so loved our world that He sent His only Son.” Some churches call this the ”Shepherd Candle” remembering those who first heard of God’s love born in a manger. They were driven by love to see it and then lovingly shared the Good News of Christ’s birth with everyone they met on their return home. Love is what makes advent possible and what Advent inspires in each of us. We want to love God by loving others.
The fourth candle, the rose colored candle, celebrates our “Joy.”
Others call this the “Angel Candle” as the angel brought, “Good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV) This joy is the joy that caused John the Baptist, while still in the womb, to leap at the sound of Mary’s voice and is the joy that we have knowing new life is ours because of the Father’s great love.
The fifth candle is the Christ candle.
This candle is white representing the light and purity of Christ that is now with us in our midst. This candle is traditionally lit on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. We light it knowing the anticipation of the previous four candles, the 400 years of anticipation, is finally over.
How to make the most of Advent?
Coming to church early and watching the advent candles burn can be a good weekly reminder of Christ’s coming. In our hustle and bustle world we have to make things happen. We can’t make Advent happen, only God can do that. The act of being still reminds us that he is God and we are not.
Join a daily Advent reading or listen to an Advent podcast. There are many of them, just search around and you’ll find one that speaks to you. Engage in the daily rhythm of listening for God’s voice and anticipating his Spirit’s movement in your life.
Respond when you sense God leading. Allow yourself the freedom to move when God speaks. If you hear him prompt you to an act of kindness or to share a word of encouragement, then do it!
Advent is a season where we celebrate the fulfillment of the Father’s greatest promise and anticipate the fulfillment of Christ’s greatest promise. It is a season where we are renewed by the constant work of Christ and his Spirit. It is a season where we turn from our darkness and find motivation to bring others to the light of the world.