By John Sundara
A few weeks ago, I came across an Advent calendar from a familiar and well-beloved tea store (whose name I will not mention, but rhymes with “Blavid’s Pea”). I love tea. So this was my jam. However, the calendar had 24 days. In case you are wondering, this is not the right number of days for Advent 2017 and the number of days changes every year. Which made me wonder, “Does ‘Blavid’s Pea’ know what Advent really means?” To which, the only answer I could come up with was, “not entirely”.
And let’s face it: most Christians don’t even understand it entirely. If it weren’t for Christmas, Advent would have little significance. It would essentially be a long and cold, chocolate-eating, frenzied-shopping, ugly-sweater-wearing and trite-party-going lead up to a very special, no-name day on December 25th, when we we exchange gifts to people we don’t really like, stuff our faces with turkey and pie, all the while humming along to nondescript songs about winter wonderlands and sleighs, snowmen who meet their untimely deaths due to warming temperatures, mommies and Santas making out secretly like teenagers, and the romance of it all because it quite frankly is an existentially warm and fuzzy time of the year.
We don’t actually need Advent beyond these often chaotic and romanticized experiences. It merely stretches out Christmas day to a few weeks before and the stores have a jolly good time on our behalf because of that.
We could just have “calendars”; but why “advent calendars”?
In fact, while we’re on the topic, here are a few nifty facts about Advent.
- The days in Advent vary every year. Although Christmas is always on December 25th, the days in Advent varies from year to year because Advent always begins on the 4th Sunday before Christmas. Sometimes Advent begins as early as the end of November; sometimes it begins as late as the first week of December.
- Each Sunday in Advent stands for something. On each Sunday, a candle is lit to celebrate something special. On the first Advent Sunday the Hope candle is lit. On the next Sunday, the Peace candle, and then the Love candle, and finally the Joy candle on the fourth Sunday. A fifth candle is lit on Christmas.
- The official colours for Advent are Purple and Blue. It has to do with preparation and hope.
- Advent comes from Latin: From adventus. Which in turn comes from the classical Greek parousia. Didn’t think you would receive an impromptu lesson on dead medieval languages did you! But here we are.
- It means “coming” or “arrival.” But coming or arrival of who or what?
To answer this question, we need to tap into a little history. As a wise sage once said (and as I lazily paraphrase), you can’t understand the present, if you don’t understand the past.
As Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, Advent used to be the time of preparation for his birth. Which is why the colours of Advent are purple and blue—preparation and hope. And the four Sundays of Advent celebrate the hope, peace, love and joy that Jesus brought to the World with his birth.
But that’s an odd thing to say. How could I possibly prepare for Jesus’ birth today, which happened over 2000 years ago? However, it’s not about literally preparing for his birth as though time-travel is a reality. But rather, preparing our hearts to receive the gifts that his birth continues to give us everyday—hope, peace, love and joy. Just as Christ manifested these virtues through his life, we prepare ourselves by taking time every year to nurture these virtues around the time of his birthday.
However, it wasn’t merely that Christ exemplified these virtues and somehow we must now follow his example by practicing hope, peace, love and joy by giving gifts to each other and hosting chic dinner parties. It’s more. Advent’s hope, peace, love and joy that we can experience is that Jesus himself gives us these things when we become his friends, brothers, and sisters, and he becomes our God. Jesus’ birth was not just the birth of another man. His birth was a historically exclusive event where God and humanity were inseparably united together in this man named Jesus. God put on flesh and lived with us. And through his sacrificial life he gifts us hope that doesn’t fade with every new failure or regret, peace that challenges the most tumultuous of inner angst, love that defies insecurity, and joy that confronts the gloom of our souls. He gives us new life, which is the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our very beings to contain this new hope, peace, love and joy of his.
Yet there is one more reason why we celebrate Advent. Hope, peace, love and joy are seemingly fleeting and elusive realities. It’s the fault in the world we live in. With the rise and fall of every kingdom, democracy, or ruler does it ever seem likely that wars will definitively cease tomorrow? Will every generation’s ideologue and despot cease to outdo the sins of their forebears? Will the carnage of greed and opportunism cease, never again to leave in its wake a ravaged Earth and a broken people? Unlikely. Left to our own devices and inventions, we will find new peoples to oppress, new swords to wield, new things to exploit, new blessings to monetize…
Yet, if Jesus is God incarnate, will there not be a day when he will set everything right–justice for the unjust, peace for the weary, the crooked made straight, the oppressed exalted, the despots chastised, the good rewarded? If Jesus is God and he is the epitome of love and sacrifice, does it not seem plausible that this God will make things right? It makes sense and our very being aches for this to become palpably true.
It is the sober realization that the world is broken and that we are a broken people. Yet, it is also the hopeful anticipation of a day of balanced scales and everything good overthrowing and defeating everything bad, once for all. Advent is that anticipated living that one day hope, peace, love and joy won’t be merely sparkly art on a Hallmark card, but tangible realities because of a new and transformed world.
So, why Advent? Advent doesn’t need us. We need it. More than a calendar that counts us down to an over-commercialized holiday, Advent creates a path for us to tread on to become virtuous individuals, who heartily befriend God in Christ, and anticipate the day when he restores all things to its good and proper end.