We know the signs of Advent, as it starts to appear on the streets and in our homes. Lights light up the shop windows with sparkle and festive cheer, ribboned wreaths appear on our neighbours’ front doors, and we dust off the box of decorations for an evening of decorating the living room. Are you an Advent Calendar person? Do you have a particularly special Christmas decoration for Advent? We all know when Advent arrives, but do we know why?
In the church calendar Advent is the season of four Sundays before Christmas, and it is meant to be a season of preparation. Of course there are the Christmas presents to buy and turkeys to order, but what kind of spiritual preparation should we need to do? After all, we know when Jesus was born – we don’t need reminding of the date, and we celebrate it every year. Does it seem strange to you that we would need to dedicate a whole season to preparation?
You might be surprised to find that the season of Advent originally had little to do with Christmas, and was in fact the preparation phase for people waiting to be baptised. In the early church, people would be baptised at Epiphany, which is when the church commemorated Jesus’ own baptism. Advent was marked out as a forty day preparation period before Epiphany, and it wasn’t until the 6th century that the church used Advent (from the Latin word ‘adventus’ which means ‘coming’) to start to think about preparing spiritually for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
This year, our Advent readings will help us to prepare our hearts for Christmas. We will be looking at four readings from Isaiah, who was a prophet who longed for the coming of the Messiah (meaning ‘anointed one’). He is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament, and his book of prophecies is often heard during Advent and Christmas.
If you want to read ahead, the four readings will be Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-10, 35:1-10 and 7:10-16. Isaiah’s vision was of a Messiah who would fulfil every need of the people – both physical and spiritual. He talks about the Messiah bringing justice and peace to all people – and even to animals too – of people walking in the light instead of darkness, and of God reigning over the world as a fair, wise and compassionate King.
Isaiah says this Messiah will be for ‘all nations’, not just for the Israelites. His vision is for global unity and international peace through the Kingdom of God – but as we can imagine, there is a lot of waiting to do before this season will come. Isaiah saw something of the coming Kingdom and longed for it with his whole heart – but he was never able to meet Jesus, the Messiah he had envisioned. And although none of us have been able to meet Jesus in person, we can know him through the Bible and through the Holy Spirit. In this Advent season we are called to do the same as Isaiah did – to turn our hearts towards the King and to long for him to come again, as he promised. There is a bittersweetness to this waiting, as like Isaiah we recognise the needs of the world around us and long for a perfect solution.
Advent can be a difficult time for some, as the pressures of family and finances bear down on us whilst we try to buy the right presents or budget for the big dinner. We might become more aware of the needs of others, such as those who are homeless or have no family to celebrate with. For all the lights and tinsel, it can feel like we are still living in the ‘desert and the parched land’ that Isaiah describes in chapter 35. We can become more aware of the tension of waiting for the perfect Kingdom of God whilst we experience difficulties and suffering.
But listen to the call of Isaiah in this season of waiting: “Come, let us go up the mountain of the Lord!” God calls us to come closer to Him in this season, to spend time with Him in prayer and praise, and to go ‘up the mountain’ so that we can get a wider perspective on things. Through Isaiah, God promises us a wonderful vision of joy at the end of the waiting:
“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”
Throughout Advent, we may be waiting not just for Christmas to arrive but for God to move in our lives or in the world. Perhaps there is a prayer you have prayed for years, and it is starting to feel like too long a time to wait? Perhaps you feel that you have run out of energy or patience, and can’t wait any longer?
It’s possible that Isaiah felt this way too. Maybe he was reminding himself of God’s faithfulness when he wrote “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.”
As we move into Advent, use this season to strengthen your faith in this way. Make time to meet with God and tell him about the things you are waiting for. Remember his faithfulness in your own life, and in the stories of the Bible. Take joy in the festive decorations, mince pies and carol singing, and thank God for the blessing of Jesus in the world. Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, will come again – we only have to wait.
This article, written by Rev Roland Slade, featured in the Advent 2019 edition of The Bridge – the magazine for All Saints’ Church in Marlow. Pick up your free copy in church or download it here.