Reflections taken from a good Anglican website about the invitation of the season. in Majesty, by Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 - c. 1430)

Rediscovering Advent

As the culture of the Church yields more and more to the priorities and the attitudes of the secular culture, and as Christmas becomes for many people a secular holiday that begins at Thanksgiving (at the end of November in the U.S.) and comes to an end shortly after dinner on December 25th, it becomes more and more difficult to observe the season of Advent with any integrity, even within the Church. Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, even Christmas services of lessons and carols are held from early December on, building to an almost anti-climactic series of services on December 24th and 25th. Those who insist on waiting to celebrate Christmas when it actually arrives are regarded as dreary pedants who are simply out-of-step with reality or insensitive to the feelings of those who prefer to follow their own traditions rather than the ancient cadences of the Church year. Although they have a high view of the faith and the feast, they are often dismissed as modern day Ebenezer Scrooges, who thought Christmas was humbug and did not even care that Advent existed. 

Sadly, much is lost in this popular reordering of the Church year. In fact, Christmas itself is impoverished. The Church has appointed twelve days for the celebration of Christmas, from December 25th through January 5th. Those days include important feasts, including St. Stephen the first martyr, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and the Holy Name, which help to illuminate more fully the meaning of Christmas. If the celebration of Christmas ends after dinner on December 25th, we lose those great days and the mysteries they unfold. Moreover, by celebrating Christmas from the beginning of December on, we override Advent and lose it. And this is a terrible loss. Advent sets before us the powerful unfolding of God's plan for all of history, a plan that culminates not in the first coming of Christ, but in his second coming. Without Advent, Christmas is all too easily reduced to a sentimental story about a baby, and even Good Friday and Easter are in danger of losing their meaning. Christmas is the celebration of the mystery of the divine Redeemer who dwelt among us on earth. But he is truly the Redeemer only if he comes again to judge the world and establish for ever his new creation. Pascha, i.e., Good Friday and Easter, is the celebration of the mystery of the divine King who reigns from the Cross and rises from the dead on the third day. But he is truly the King only if he ascends the throne prepared for him by his Father from the beginning of time, the throne of his eternal Kingdom which will not be fully realized until the end of time.

When Advent is swamped and washed away by the premature celebration of Christmas, we lose something more: we lose the gifts of expectation and anticipation. Modern western society is a culture of instant gratification. We are unwilling to wait for anything and in refusing to wait we also lose much of the value of the thing desired. If we can have anything we want, whenever we want it, everything is cheapened and nothing is of much value. On the other hand, waiting patiently gives us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and value of the things we desire. Indeed, it enhances the value of those things, for nothing is more valuable than the thing that is out of reach, and few possessions are more prized than the ones for which we have longed and waited. Furthermore, the truth is that, in spite of our desire for instant gratification, and in spite of the fact that we live in a time of abundance of every sort, we cannot always have what we want or, more importantly, what we need.  And in such circumstances, what we need more than anything else is hope. In C.S. Lewis's Narnia, it was always winter but never Christmas before the return of Aslan. It was, in certain ways, a very unhappy time, but it was also a time in which the citizens of Narnia found that they could survive, if only they could hold on to their faith, with the hope that Aslan would return someday. Hope nurtures faith in a way that instant gratification never can. Had it been the other way around, always Christmas, a time of unending gift-giving and continual parties, faith, as well as hope, would have been in jeopardy. For when a time of darkness or danger returned, no one would have been prepared to deal with it, no one would have had the inner resources to face it. As Saint Paul writes (Romans 5:3-4), "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." (Romans 5:3-4) Advent is the Church's time of learning to live through the darkness, learning to grow in the hope that sustains faith. Rediscovering Advent thus becomes a project of the greatest importance.

The season of Advent looks back, to a time before the birth of Christ, to show us how the people of God learned hope in ancient times. And then the season of Advent looks forward, far beyond the birth of Christ, to the true object of our faith, the King who comes to conquer the darkness, restore creation, and establish his Kingdom for ever. We see in the stories of ancient Israel and in the writings of the prophets a world very much like our own, a world of people rebelling against God and finding themselves lost in darkness again and again. The prophets also show how God has a plan, not only for his people Israel but for the whole world--a plan that extends beyond the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The coming of the Messiah then, at a remarkable moment of peace in the ancient world, was not the completion of God's plan. Nevertheless, it was the turning point, the critical sign which assures us that there is reason to hope. And so, in Advent we recall the ancient prophecies and signs which led to the birth of the Messiah, and we look forward in hope, applying those same prophecies and signs to the world in which we live, in hope and faithful anticipation that the same Messiah, Jesus Christ, will come again as he promised.

We cannot hope to reverse the commercial hijacking and premature celebration of Christmas which has played a major role in the near demise of Advent, so we should not waste our time trying. What we can do is rededicate ourselves to the observance of Advent in our churches and in our homes. Through the years the Church has developed many resources for this, so we do not need to reinvent Advent. We just need to rediscover it.