Advent

Advent IV: God Keeps His Promises

Advent IV: God Keeps His Promises

On the fourth Sunday of Advent (Advent IV), we celebrate God’s faithfulness in sending Jesus, and we remember that faithfulness as we look forward to Christ’s second coming.

The Scripture and Theology of the Fourth Week of Advent

Scripture readings for Advent IV focus on the coming of the Messiah who fulfills God’s covenant with David, bringing salvation for all people and the eternal reign of God on earth.

Old Testament Readings        

Old Testament passages for the final week of Advent reflect on prophecies, which are fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. Isaiah 7:10-16 recounts the story of King Ahaz, king of Judah at a time when Judah was facing a foreign invasion. Ahaz hoped for help from the king of Assyria. The prophet Isaiah, however, downplays human-oriented deliverance and instead points to God’s divine intervention to bring about his kingdom—an intervention that would come through a baby born in Bethlehem. Isaiah says, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

We see something similar happen in 2 Samuel 7:1-16 when God corrects King David’s human plans by revealing his divine plan. When David starts to make plans to build a temple for God to dwell in, God counters that he himself will build his own “house” through the dynasty of David, ultimately dwelling among his people as God with us—Immanuel—in Jesus Christ. God promises that he will make for David a great name, give his people eternal rest from enemies, and give him an everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 7:9-16); these promises are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.

Micah 5:4-5 looks forward to how God will rule over his people through Jesus: “He shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”

Readings from the Psalms

In Psalm 80:1-8 we see the psalmist praying for deliverance and restoration. Because of God’s past deliverance, the psalmist calls for God once again to let his face shine upon his people so that they can be saved. The Gospel of John says that those who have seen the face of Jesus Christ have seen the face of God (John 14:9). In Jesus Christ, God fulfills his promise of salvation by making his face shine upon his people.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 shows God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. God said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations’” (Ps. 89:3-4). God said he would be faithful to David, and through Jesus, God keeps his promise.

New Testament Readings       

New Testament readings for Advent IV continue to reflect on God’s faithfulness to his promises. The gospel was “promised beforehand through [God’s] prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:2-4). The good news of salvation is that God has been faithful to his promise to David in sending Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.

Hebrews 10:5-10 reminds us that Christ’s coming obliterates the old system of sacrifice, through the sacrifice Jesus made for us, once for all. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:9-10). Jesus’ birth points us forward to the cross. As Karl Barth put it, “Except we see the Cross at Golgotha we cannot hear the Gospel at the crib of Bethlehem.”

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent IV tell the story of the angel coming to Mary and Joseph to announce Christ’s birth. In Matthew 1:18-25 the angel Gabriel tells Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This fulfilled what the Lord had promised to the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, ‘God with us’)” (Matt 1:22, from Isaiah 7:14).

Luke 1:26-38 tells another more of the story and connects Jesus’ birth to the lineage of David. The angel tells Mary that her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

The Symbolic Spirituality of the Fourth Week of Advent

The Jesse Tree and Advent Wreath both bring to conclusion the theme of repentance throughout the Advent season. The Jesse Tree tells the story of God bringing his people out of exile through Jesus Christ, and the Advent Wreath expresses the peace that we experience through God’s redemption.

The Jesse Tree                       

The Jesse Tree in Advent III felt somber; Israel was in exile, and there was little hope in sight. But the story now takes a positive turn with the arrival of the one who paves the way for Christ. God’s promise has arrived, and by telling the stories of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80, 3:1-20, 7:18-30), Mary (Luke 1:26-38), Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56), Zechariah (Luke 1:57-80), Joseph (Matthew 1:19-25), the Magi (Matt 2:1-12), Jesus (Luke 2:1-20), and Christ (John 1:1-18), the Jesse Tree becomes fully lit. The story that God began with Adam reaches the top of the tree with the arrival of the Second Adam, Jesus, who reverses the curse of sin by crushing the head of the serpent on the cross.

The Advent Wreath

On the last Sunday of Advent, a fourth candle on the Advent Wreath is lit. Traditionally, this purple candle has been called the “Angel Candle” and represents the peace that Christ’s birth brings to earth. All four of the candles around the Advent Wreath are now burning, each at a different height. Only one candle remains: the center, white Christ Candle that is lit on Christmas Eve, representing the pure lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.

God Keeps His Promises

The Advent season is a journey through the biblical story that shows us how “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 1:20). Advent points us to Jesus, just like all Scripture. At his first coming, which we celebrate at Christmas, Jesus showed us his humility, his love for us, and his heart of grace toward sinners and sufferers. At his second coming, which we look forward to in Advent, he will complete what he started at his birth, bringing a final end to suffering, sin, and death, restoring his creation, and setting up a new kingdom of righteousness and peace. God keeps his promises.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

Advent III: Rejoice! God Is With Us

Advent III: Rejoice! God Is With Us

The third Sunday in Advent (Advent III) shifts from a tone of expectation of Christ’s coming to one of rejoicing at the arrival of God’s kingdom with the coming of Jesus.

The Scripture and Theology of the Third Week of Advent

Scripture readings for Advent III reflect on the salvation and restoration Jesus brings, which is cause for rejoicing and perseverance.

Old Testament Readings 

Old Testament readings for Advent III highlight the universal restoration Jesus accomplishes. In Isaiah 35:1-10, the prophet looks forward to the future promised for the people of God—a future inaugurated at the first coming of Christ and consummated at his second coming. When Jesus returns, the effects of sin’s curse will be removed: the wildernesses and dry land will blossom, and streams will come forth from the desert. The miracles he did point to his kingdom: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 shows God’s concern for those on the fringes of society—those who have no voice of their own and cannot speak for themselves. The Messiah has been anointed by God to bring good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance. God is one who loves justice and mercy, and in his coming kingdom those who suffer from injustice will be restored. The coming Christ “will save the lame and gather the outcast, and [he] will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19).

Readings from the Psalms

The Psalms for Advent III carry on the theme of the justice and mercy brought about by God’s coming kingdom. Psalm 146:4-10 says that the one “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” is blessed. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the downcast, keeps watch over sojourners, and upholds widows and orphans (146:8-9). When God brings restoration to his people, there will be laughter and joy, and tears shall be turned into shouts of joy (Psalm 126:5).

New Testament Readings       

New Testament readings in the third week of Advent show how believers are motivated to wait patiently for Jesus’ return. As 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 says, patience should be accompanied by rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving as well as abstaining from evil. God is faithful, and he is the one who will sanctify us, so Christians can be sure that we will be kept blameless at Christ’s second coming. Only God’s power can do this, and “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). Philippians 4:4-7 continues the theme of rejoicing, because God’s peace for those in Christ will guard our hearts and minds.

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent III return to John the Baptist, but in a way that points from him to Jesus. In Matthew 11:2-11, John hears rumors about what Jesus was doing and asks him (through his disciples) “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus responds to John’s followers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4-5). Jesus’ answer is incredibly fitting—“look at what I’m doing,” he says. “You know that the Messiah will bring healing to those in need, and that’s exactly what I bring.”

John the Baptist came as a witness, “to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him” (John 1:8). John came to bear witness about the light, who is Jesus. John claimed, “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23).

John preached the gospel to the people—the good news of God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace (Luke 3:18).

The Symbolic Spirituality of the Third Week of Advent

The Jesse Tree           

During the third week of Advent, the Jesse Tree recounts the story of how God’s people often failed, revealing their deep need for a Savior. The branches on the tree this week are crooked and deathly-looking, with few leaves on them. Through the stories of David (1 Sam. 16:1-23, 2 Sam. 5:1-5, 7:1-17), Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-16, 18:17-46), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-19:19, 32-37), Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10-20, 6:1-13, 8:11-9:7), Jeremiah (2:4-13, 7:1-15, 8:22-9:11), Habakkuk (Hab. 1:1-2:1, 3:16-19), and Nehemiah (Neh. 1:1-2:8, 6:15-16, 13:10-22), the Jesse Tree narrates Israel’s fall into exile and her waiting for the Messiah.

The Advent Wreath    

A third candle—a pink one—is lit on the Advent Wreath for Advent III. This candle, often called the Shepherd’s Candle or the Joy Candle, represents joy, such as the joy the shepherds experienced when the angel told them that Christ was to be born. The Advent season is now half over, and Jesus’ coming—both his first coming, liturgically, and his second coming, historically—is nearer now than it was two weeks ago.

Rejoicing

More than any other week during the Advent season, Advent III represents a shift in attitude. One moves from hope, repentance, and fear of the coming Judge to rejoicing at the coming of salvation and the kingdom of God as Jesus makes all things new.

These Advent rhythms represent shifts that we often experience in our Christian lives. Some days we feel like the injustices in this world are more than we can handle, some days we anguish over our sin, and others we long for the day when God will finally defeat the last great enemy, death. Advent III helps us move out of these moods and into rejoicing, because God has come to save us and to be with us, and he will come again.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

Advent II: The Messiah Is Coming

Advent II: The Messiah Is Coming

The second Sunday in Advent (Advent II) continues on the path started in the first week by looking forward to Christ’s first and second coming. Advent II focuses on John the Baptist, the Gentiles being included in God’s family, Christ’s coming in judgment and peace, and the church’s hopeful expectation of the completion of his promises.

The Scripture and Theology of the Second Week of Advent

Whereas the Scripture readings for Advent I speak broadly about God’s promise to bring Israel out of exile, the readings for Advent II focus more specifically on the Messiah and what his coming will look like.

Old Testament Readings

Old Testament readings for Advent II reflect on the type of kingdom the coming Messiah will bring: one of judgment and peace.

Isaiah 11:1-10 says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (1–2). This is a beautiful image. From the dead, rotting, and decaying stump of Jesse (King David’s father)—a broken dynasty which was apparently going nowhere—God will unexpectedly cause new life to shoot forth. God did not abandon his people who had fallen into Babylonian captivity. Instead, in continuing his promise to Abraham, God works to bring new life out of death through a descendant of David. Where there is brokenness, God creates hope. Where there is darkness, God’s light shines forth.

The one coming in righteousness, with the Spirit of the Lord upon him, will bring a mix of peace and judgment. He will judge the poor with righteousness (Isaiah 11:4) and kill the wicked with the breath of his lips (11:4). This peace-bringing judgment will finally end the cycle of death begun by sin.

Isaiah 40:1-11 shifts to the prophecy concerning John the Baptist, who will come ahead of the Davidic King as a messenger preparing the way. He will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). Then, in that day, when the glory of God will be revealed (40:5), the Anointed One will come with might (40:10), but as one who tenderly cares for his flock like a shepherd (40:11).

These passages portray both Christ’s first and second coming. While the reign of peace Jesus brings begins during the Incarnation, God’s kingdom will not be completed until Jesus returns again.

Readings from the Psalms     

During Advent II, Psalms reveal the character of the coming Savior. Psalm 72 describes him as a just king and a righteous judge who defends the cause of the poor, crushes oppressors, delivers the children of the needy, and brings peace. Psalm 85 focuses on the peace that will accompany the coming of the Lord. Verses 1–2 recall how God restored Jacob’s fortune and forgave the people in the past by covering their sin. The Psalm shifts to the future in verse 8, saying, “he will speak peace to his people, to his saints.” God spoke peace in Jesus’s first coming, and that peace will once again be spoken when he returns for his people. His salvation is near to those who trust him, and in him “steadfast love and faithfulness meet” (85:10).

New Testament Readings

New Testament readings during Advent II remind God’s people to live in hope while they wait for the second advent of Jesus Christ. Romans 15:4–13 calls the church to endurance and hope, welcoming others into the family just like Jesus did. God, in his hospitality, included those outside the ethnic borders of Israel into his one covenant family. As a result of this hospitality, Paul exhorts, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (15:13). God’s grace makes Advent a season of hope.

Second Peter 3:8–15 reminds us that God is not slow to fulfill his promises. And because God promised to return like a thief in the night (3:10), God’s people should live in holiness, godliness, and peace as we await the coming new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Philippians 1:3–11 points to God’s faithfulness. The one who began a work in his people will bring it to completion when Christ returns.

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent II meditate on John the Baptist, the one sent to pave the way for Christ. Matthew 3:1–12 says that John the Baptist came calling for repentance because God’s kingdom was close at hand. John confronted the  Pharisees and Sadducees, who thought they stood on solid ground because they were descendants of Abraham. However, John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9–10). The family of God is being extended beyond the bounds of the nation of Israel. John tells the religious leaders that their ethnicity is of no benefit to them if they do not, like everyone else, repent and bear fruit. Mark 1:1–8 similarly speaks of John the Baptist’s coming, while tracing Jesus’s lineage back to God himself, and Luke 3:1–6 adds that the coming of the Messiah will cause all people to see God’s salvation.

The Symbolic Spirituality of the Second Week of Advent

During the second week of Advent, the Jesse Tree and Advent Wreath, introduced during the first week, both help teach the theological significance of the journey through the Advent season.

The Jesse Tree                                   

Continuing the story of Christ’s family tree, the Jesse Tree recounts God’s work through Joseph (Gen. 37, 39:1–50:21), Moses (Exod. 2:1–4:20), the Israelites (Exod. 12:1–14:31), God’s Law at Sinai (Exod. 19:1–20:20), Joshua (Josh. 1:1–11, 6:1–20), Gideon (Judg. 2:6–23, 6:1–6, 11–8:28), and Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1–21, 7:1–8, 9:15–10:9). In each of these stories the lineage of Jesus is further filled in, and God’s provision for his people becomes progressively clearer.

The Advent Wreath

On the second Sunday of Advent, the second purple candle, sometimes called the “Bethlehem Candle,” is lit. This candle represents love—both God’s for us and ours for him and others—and symbolizes the manger where Jesus was born. The manger is a vivid reminder of the great lengths to which the King of Creation went, humbling himself for his people. He deserved a kingly procession into the city with much fanfare. Instead we see him born in a manger, living in poverty with no place to lay his head, and entering the city on a donkey as he makes his way to the cross. Lighting the second Advent candle reminds us of Jesus’ life of love for us.

Grace to Wait

As we continue down the Advent path on Advent II, we are constantly reminded of Christ’s first coming while we watch and wait for his second coming. The prayer for the second week of Advent puts it this way:

“Father in heaven, who sent your Son to redeem the world and will send him again to be our judge: give us grace so to imitate him in the humility and purity of his first coming that, when he comes again, we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This post is part of a series on Advent:

 

Advent I: Waiting For Christ’s Return

Advent I: Waiting For Christ’s Return

Setting the Tone for Advent

The first Sunday of Advent sets the tone for the season by looking forward to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Through the Scripture passages read and the spiritual practices observed, Christians are called to re-orient themselves to a mindset of watching and waiting for Christ’s return, while at the same time evaluating their lives on the basis of Christ’s first coming.

The Scripture and Theology of the First Week of Advent

While there are many traditions and festivities tied to the Advent season, the theological center is found in the Scripture readings read during each of the four Advent Sundays. The theology of Advent is rich with significance.

Old Testament Readings

Readings from the Old Testament during Advent I ground the entire season in the story of Israel’s expectation of the coming Messiah. Isaiah 2:1–5, in one of the most beautiful and profound images in the Old Testament, looks forward to the one who will come in peace-bringing judgment:

 

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall decide disputes for many peoples;

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

 

This prophecy looks forward both to the Incarnation and the second coming of Jesus.

Isaiah 64:1–9 asks God to “rend the heavens and come down” (64:1), bringing his holy presence to earth. This coming, according to Jeremiah 33:14–16, is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. The one who is coming—one who is a Branch of David, an Israelite—will bring justice and righteousness: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). This “Branch” imagery is adopted into a significant spiritual practice associated with Advent.

Readings from the Psalms     

During Advent I, readings from the Psalms cry out to God for him to act on his people’s behalf as he has in the past, bringing final peace and restoration to the earth. Psalm 122 asks for peace to come upon the city of God in a new reign of righteousness on the earth, Psalm 80 requests God’s restoration of his people (80:3, 19), and Psalm 25:1–9 recalls God’s covenantal steadfast love and mercy, which were present from days past, and beckons God once again to remember his covenant and act faithfully on behalf of his people.

New Testament Readings

Scripture readings from the New Testament letters during Advent I bring to mind the church’s life between the ascension of Christ and his return for his people. In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, Paul speaks of the church as waiting for the second coming of Christ, continually sustained by God’s faithful provision. Romans 13:11–14 and 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13, on the other hand, urge the church to pursue holiness eagerly. Because, as Romans 13:12–14 says, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand,” Christians are to “cast off the works of darkness” and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 suggests that the motive for increasing and abounding in love for one another is so that Christians can walk in blamelessness and holiness before God in preparation for Christ’s return.

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent I call the people of God to watchful vigilance for Christ’s second Advent and set the tone for the entire season. Matthew 24:36–44 and Mark 13:24–37 look forward to Christ’s coming in glory at a time that no one knows. Christians are to “stay awake” (Matthew 24:42) and “be on guard” (Mark 13:33). Matthew says that just as the flood in the days of Noah came unexpectedly and wiped away those who were unprepared, the return of Christ will be sudden, and those who are not ready for it will be left. Luke 21:25–36 repeats the theme of watchfulness, calling Christians to “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” However, Jesus goes on to add that part of this watchfulness includes introspection: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). A theme of repentance is reiterated throughout the Advent season.

The Symbolic Spirituality of the First Week of Advent

While Scripture is central to the season, there are a variety of symbolic spiritual practices that reinforce the theology of Advent. The trees and wreaths that are symbols of Advent are great visual storytellers to help teach the Christian story.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree, which is introduced on Advent I, is an artistic depiction of the genealogical tree of Jesus. It is basically an extended genealogy that tells the entire biblical story of redemption. The symbol of the tree comes from Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

During the week following the first Sunday of Advent (and each week thereafter), different ornaments are added to the tree, each symbolizing an Old Testament figure in the family line of Jesus. In the first week, ornaments representing God (Gen 1:1-2:3), Adam and Eve (Gen 2:4-3:24), Noah (Gen 6:11-22, 7:17-8:12, 20-9:17), Abraham (Gen 12:1-7, 15:1-6), Isaac (Gen 22:1-19), and Jacob (Gen 27:41-28:22) are put on the tree, starting from the bottom and progressively moving upwards. Each week until Christmas, new figures are added as the story of the Old Testament progressively unfolds.

The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath is an ordinary wreath with special candles added to it. Three purple candles and one pink candle stand around the outside of the wreath, and a white candle fills the center. Each Sunday during the Advent season, one candle—each representing something different—is lit. Like the Jesse Tree progressively being filled in, the Advent wreath gets brighter and brighter as Christmas approaches.

The first purple candle, lit on Advent I, is called the prophecy candle. In conjunction with the Scripture readings for the week, it represents hope and expectation for the coming Messiah. As the candle burns throughout the week and becomes smaller and smaller, it helps us remember that time continually passes and the return of Christ becomes nearer and nearer with each passing day.

Waiting for Christ’s Return

Advent is rich with theological significance, and the Scripture readings and spiritually symbolic practices of the season help focus our attention on the first and second coming of Christ. The Advent season is a somber time of personal reflection, hope and longing, and joyful expectation for the coming of Jesus.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

What Is Advent?

What Is Advent?

For many Christians unfamiliar with the liturgical year, there may be some confusion surrounding the meaning of the Advent season. Some people may know that the Advent season focuses on expectation and think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is part of the story, but there’s more to Advent.

The History of Advent                                 

The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming,” which is a translation of the Greek word parousia. Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries in Spain and Gaul, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1–2), his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (John 1:29–33), and his first miracle at Cana (John 2:1–11). During this season of preparation, Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for this celebration; originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas.

By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds as the judge of the world. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.

Advent Today                                   

Today, the Advent season, which begins on the Sunday that falls between November 27th and December 3rd, lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas. At that time, the new Christian year begins with the twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, which lasts from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6.

Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2), as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom. The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people. In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.

Advent Liturgy and Practice                                   

To balance the two elements of remembrance and anticipation, the first two Sundays in Advent (through December 16th) look forward to Christ’s second coming, and the last two Sundays (December 17th – 24th) look backward to remember Christ’s first coming. Over the course of the four weeks, Scripture readings move from passages about Christ’s return in judgment, to Old Testament passages about the expectation of the coming Messiah, to New Testament passages about the announcements of Christ’s arrival by John the Baptist and the Angels.

While it is difficult to keep in mind in the midst of holiday celebrations, shopping, lights and decorations, and joyful carols, Advent is intended to be a season of fasting, much like Lent, and there are a variety of ways that this time of mourning works itself out in the season. Reflection on the violence and evil in the world cause us to cry out to God to make things right—to put death’s dark shadows to flight. Our exile in the present makes us look forward to our future Exodus. And our own sinfulness and need for grace leads us to pray for the Holy Spirit to renew his work in conforming us into the image of Christ.

One catechism describes Advent spirituality beautifully: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

 Advent Wreath and Candles

Three purple candles and one pink or purple candle stand around the outside of the wreath, and a white candle fills the center.

  1. Prophecy Candle: In conjunction with the Scripture readings for the week, this purple candle represents hope and expectation for the coming Messiah. As the candle burns throughout the week and becomes smaller and smaller, it helps us remember that time continually passes and the return of Christ becomes nearer and nearer with each passing day.
  2. Bethlehem Candle: This purple candle represents love—both God’s for us and ours for him and others—and symbolizes the manger where Jesus was born. The manger is a vivid reminder of the great lengths to which the King of Creation went, humbling himself for his people. He deserved a kingly procession into the city with much fanfare. Instead we see him born in a manger, living in poverty with no place to lay his head, and entering the city on a donkey as he makes his way to the cross. Lighting the second Advent candle reminds us of Jesus’ life of love for us.
  3. Shepherd’s Candle or Joy Candle: This purple or pink candle represents joy, such as the joy the shepherds experienced when the angel told them that Christ was to be born. The Advent season is now half over, and Jesus’ coming—both his first coming, liturgically, and his second coming, historically—is nearer now than it was two weeks ago.
  4. Angel Candle: This purple candle has been called the “Angel Candle” and represents the peace that Christ’s birth brings to earth. All four of the candles around the Advent Wreath are now burning, each at a different height.
  5. Christ Candle: The white Christ Candle that is lit on Christmas Eve, representing the pure lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.

Advent and the Christian Life                               

While Advent is certainly a time of celebration and anticipation of Christ’s birth, it is more than that. It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense. It is between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the  yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming that Karl Barth penned these words: “Unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise.” The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; he has come, and he will come again. This is the essence of Advent.

“May He whose second coming in power and great glory we await, make you steadfast in faith, joyful in hope, and constant in love. Amen.” – The Book of Occasional Services, page 22.

This post is part of a series on Advent: