When and where is Advent?


On November 16 as a group of pilgrims who had accompanied me to the Holy Land arrived home and exited customs in Logan’s Terminal E, we were greeted by the sight of two Christmas trees: one merely decorated in the lower lobby but another decorated and already lit up in the upper lobby. 

Perhaps to some people these trees are a pleasing sight, but admittedly to me, they are a rather inappropriate one. Why? Because it was only mid-November, and Thanksgiving had not yet even been celebrated and already Christmas was being displayed front and center. Of course, in some stores and commercial establishments Christmas has been on display even before the Halloween decorations were taken down! 

Some Christians may tend to argue that Christmas trees in a public place are a good thing because this seems to indicate that Christmas isn’t being forgotten in our increasingly secular culture or completely repackaged and marketed to the many as a winter holiday that even unbelievers can enjoy. Yet when Christmas themes start to predominate in advertisements, decorations, or music even before Thanksgiving and remain so from “Black Friday” to December 25, then we run the serious risk of losing sight of the short but very important season of Advent. Ironically, Advent’s message of watch, wait, be patient and prepare is in danger of being missed when it is needed most.

 It is perhaps common even among many Christians to assume that Advent is mainly a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas and so all the decorations and jingles don’t necessarily strike them as somehow out of place as long as these don’t make their appearance until Thanksgiving day is just about over. However, Advent isn’t only about being ready for Christmas, it’s primarily about being ready to meet the Lord when He comes again in glory at the end of time!

When we listen more closely to the message of the Scripture readings which are traditionally placed before us in this important opening season of our Church year, we can appreciate why Advent’s color isn’t yet red, green, silver or gold but must be the deep purple which signifies penance. Preparing to meet the Lord demands much more than shopping, card writing, decorating and entertaining; rather, preparing to meet the Lord requires a change of mind and heart that we call repentance and conversion. While on one level we are indeed preparing for the annual commemoration of the Lord’s first coming among us as a Child at Bethlehem in the celebration we call Christmas, yet when He comes again someday it won’t be as a child in a manger but as the Lord of glory and so we are being called to prepare on a much deeper level for that inevitable and fateful final encounter. 

Thus, while the preparation for Christmas has its place in Advent, it’s not really the main focus of Advent until the final week. Before the 17th of December we are urged to use this short but important season to do the Spiritual housework of purifying our minds and hearts so that we may be prepared not merely for an annual feast, but for that endless feast in God’s Kingdom to which we hope to be invited when, as promised, the Lord returns again in glory as judge of all. 

The Advent Scripture readings have an urgent tone to them as they repeatedly remind us that because we can’t know the day of the Lord’s return, the time to prepare for that day has to be right here and now. We are warned not to be found asleep but alert and active in our readiness to meet Him. From the writings of the prophet Isaiah and the example of John the Baptist we learn that the how of this preparation is actually dependent upon the where, which is in the desert! The desert referred to in Isaiah and well known to John the Baptist is the Judean wilderness east of Jerusalem and in the vicinity of Jericho and the Dead Sea, but that doesn’t mean we all need to get on a plane and go there. 

What we are being advised to find is what the desert naturally provides, which is time alone in a place where we will have few if any distractions and thus where we will be better able to re-appreciate our utter dependence upon God and the need we all have of regularly righting our relationship with Him. Ironically, this urgent message is always in peril of being drowned out by the holiday bells and jingles which are being blared on radios or televisions, in malls, and even through our own ear buds which focus our attention on Christmas far too soon and create the tendency to overlook this brief but critically important and sobering season of Advent. 

 When is Advent? It is now, but not only now, it should be always because the glorious Second Coming of Christ is the only event in Salvation History that remains to be fulfilled and so we need to be ever-prepared for that day. Ironically in our distracted lives, especially at this overly busy time of year, Advent runs the risk of never even being observed at all. Where is Advent? In truth it isn’t merely in days shaded purple on a Liturgical calendar, and sadly it will be nowhere to be found unless on those days (at least) we intentionally go to a desert of our own creation and there find time to be alone, undistracted and completely honest with ourselves before God.

Father Healey is pastor of Christ the King Parish in Mashpee. 

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