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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Advent. It sure isn't Christmas!

Advent is the first season of the Church’s year. It encompasses the four Sundays prior to sundown on Christmas Eve, when the shorter Christmas-Epiphany period begins.  The word ‘Advent’ literally means coming, which also reveals the main theological theme of the season:  that time in which the Church looks, with great anticipation, for the coming of Jesus into the world. 'Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!' is the oft-repeated prayer.

The ‘coming’ we reflect on in Advent is not, in fact, primarily that first coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, but the second coming of Christ at the end of the ages, when God will put right everything that is wrong, and the poor and faithful will finally inherit new heavens and a new earth.  The Scriptures read during this period talk of the hope of all God’s people for peace and justice in the world.  They speak also of a messiah who will inaugurate this age by taking up the ancient throne of David.  Startling cosmic images are used to speak of what things will be like when the messiah arrives: wolves lying down with lambs and children playing safely over the nests of snakes (Isaiah 11.1-10) are just two examples. 

Of course, the flip side of such hope is a very real sense that the messianic age has not yet arrived.  We do not hope for things that are already ours!  This indicates a fundamental difference between Advent and the Christmas season which follows.  Christ has come a first time, certainly, and it is the special function of the Christmas period to reflect this fact and tell that story.  Yet the Christ who came two thousand years ago has still not arrived in all his glorious fullness.  We know this because the universe does not yet experience the wholeness of his promised peace.  It is dominated, rather, by sin, suffering and despair.  These realities are frankly acknowledged during Advent, and worshippers are encouraged to repent of the part they play in making and keeping the world in its deplorable state.  Thus Advent, like its twin season of Lent, invites Christians to consider the ways in which Christ has actually been rendered absent or irrelevant in both their own lives and that of the world. Advent then encourages worshippers to place their hope and trust in Christ who, when he arrives in divine glory, will put all such faults away for ever. 

To help Christians reflect on what the coming of Jesus might mean for us today, the Church makes use of a number of interesting symbols.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree is named from Isaiah 11.1: "A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots."  It is a symbol of the faith and family of God from which Jesus came. Jesus is like a new branch springing from an old family and faith.  We use the Jesse Tree to think about the importance of our forbears in teaching us to place our faith and hope in Christ.

In Australia, the Jesse Tree is often a eucalypt.  Eucalypts are regenerated by fire; they have to be destroyed in order to be born anew.  The biblical Branch is a sign of newness in the midst of destruction or discouragement.  The idea of the new Branch from an old stump became a way to talk about the expected messiah (e.g., Jer 23.5) who would save Israel from all its troubles. The presence of the Jesse Tree in churches during Advent reminds worshippers that Jesus came to suffer the full consequences of our all-too-human sin and despair, but then to rise again as a sign of hope for all who would follow him.

Christians long for the full reign of the messiah, and the kingdom of Peace that he will bring. So, while we celebrate the birth of the Branch, the new shoot from the stump of Jesse, we anticipate with hope the Second Advent, and await the completion of the promise.

Wreath and Candles

At the front of many churches you will notice, during Advent, the presence of a circular wreath of green, with four candles about it.  The wreath is a circle of evergreen branches that reminds us of God’s love.  Like a circle, God’s love has no beginning or end.  Like an evergreen tree, it is forever alive and growing.  God’s love never fails.

The Advent candles are variously purple, white, and pink.  Purple is the colour of kings, but it is also the colour of bruises.  It reminds us that while Jesus may indeed be the royal Son of God, in fact he came to share our humanity, to suffer and die that a new kind of humanity might be born from his suffering.  Purple is also the colour of Lent, the season in which we remember Christ’s journey to the cross and resurrection.  It is used during Advent to remind us that God’s love is not insipid or sentimental, but costly and real.

A pink candle may be lit on the third or fourth Sunday of Advent as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It was her special obedience to bear the Christ child who would live and die and be raised for us all.

The white candle that stands at the centre of the wreath is known as the ‘Christ’ candle.  It is lit on Christmas Eve to signify Christ’s arrival in our midst. It parallels and represents the lighting of the Paschal candle at the Vigil of Easter, a new light for a new world.

Nativity Scene

The traditional name for Christmas is the ‘Feast of the Nativity’.  The word “Nativity” literally means to “become native” or to be born into a particular community and place.  For Christians, the Feast of the Nativity celebrates the very human birth of the unique Son of God to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth.

During Advent, churches often anticipate the nativity of Christ by introducing parts of the traditional nativity ‘scene’ during the final two Sundays of Advent.  Around the (still-empty) manger where the saviour was laid are placed his parents, a stable, animals and shepherds, as well as stars and angels.  This scene can become a symbol of cosmic anticipation as the church, together with the whole creation, await the messiah’s arrival.

The ‘O’ Antiphons

A key component of the gathering rites during Advent worship are a series of responsive invocations known as the ‘O’ Antiphons.  Each antiphon contains an invocation of Jesus, using one of his biblical titles: O Wisdom, O Lord etc., ending with O Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. Each contains a tiny prayer for God's people, and the petition that Christ will come very soon.  The ‘O’ Antiphons are very old, going back to the Vesper Prayers for Advent offered by the faithful in the eighth century Roman rite.

The antiphons represent a tiny theology textbook on who Christ is. O Wisdom reminds us that Christ is the Logos, the Word of God, through whom all things are created. O Adonai calls upon the Lord who spoke from the Burning Bush, telling Moses to lead his people to freedom. O Root of Jesse speaks of Christ born of the line of David; God, born into a human family. O Key of David refers to Christ who has the power to open all the prisons we may find ourselves in, and to lock away all things that hinder us in our journey to God. O Rising Dawn is the promise that even in our darkest times, Christ, the Light of the World, will shine forth. O King of the Nations looks forward to Christ's reign of justice and peace. O Emmanuel brings us to Bethlehem, to that moment in history when Christ became a human being.  

The church uses the Antiphons throughout Advent, either as a spoken litany or by singing the well-known 9th century hymn “Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. 


In our consumer-dominated Western culture, the reflective experience of Advent is very often lost, even in the church. We are all so very keen to get what we want, and to get it now.  We want to celebrate Christmas as early as possible, especially that kind of Christmas which is all about the exchange of so-called gifts and the telling of sentimental stories about so-called family values.  Advent, on the other hand, creates a space in which we are invited to reflect on the experience of not yet having what we desire or, more profoundly still, of relinquishing our own sense of what is desirable in favour of what the coming Christ might desire for us.  Advent is an invitation to stop doing all the things that make our lives miserable – including being busy and stressed! – and to listen, instead, for the coming Word who alone can give us the power to become children of God.  In my experience, one can only do that by refusing to participate in the Australian summer festival that is called ‘Christmas’, the Christmas that begins in November and has almost nothing to do with Christ.

I wish you all a very blessed Advent.

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