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-Ephipany 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 his divine glory at the end of the age, 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
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.
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 pink candle might also stand for Gaudete ('Rejoice') Sunday, something of a joyous break in the otherwise penitential tone of Advent.
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.
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 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 gifts and the telling of sentimental stories about middle-class 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 consuming, 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 holy Advent.