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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

Why Do Christians Observe Advent?

While the Bible doesn’t say anything about observing the tradition of Advent, this tradition has existed within the global Christian church for centuries. It is nearly as old as the church itself, with the earliest mentions of the tradition happening as early as 380 AD at the Council of Saragossa. While that council was responding to a belief and practice that had migrated from traditional Christianity, the longstanding tradition of observing a time of waiting for the celebration of the incarnation has remained a profoundly meaningful and beloved tradition that has endured throughout the centuries.

What Is an Advent Celebration?

So what does the celebration of Advent involve? Today, many evangelical churches celebrate the season in their Advent services by reading Scripture passages that relate to the incarnation (see below for the readings for 2022 from the Common Lectionary) and lighting candles that celebrate the traditional aspects of this period of waiting. These readings are typically part of Sunday services, so they begin 4 weeks before the Sunday of Christmas week.

While it’s true that those in the congregation sometimes anxiously hold their breath as a family’s 5-year-old shakily holds the lighter to one of the five candles, the depth of meaning behind these profound readings and this quiet practice increases as the Advent season progresses.

Each of the five candles has different meanings, and while different traditions use different colors, one traditional Advent candle color and order is as follows:

• First Sunday candle: Purple. This is known as the “prophecy candle,” or the candle of HOPE.

• Second Sunday candle: Purple. This is known as the “Bethlehem candle,” or the candle of PEACE.

• Third Sunday candle: Pink. This is known as the “shepherd candle,” or the candle of JOY.

• Fourth Sunday candle: Purple. This is known as the “angel candle,” or the candle of LOVE.

• Christmas Eve candle: White. This is known as the “Christ candle,” and it symbolizes many things, including PURITY, LIGHT, RESTORATION, HOLINESS, and VICTORY.

What is the Meaning of Advent?

The word “Advent” means “coming.” As the days grow shorter every year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) and the darkness comes earlier, Christian families and churches look forward to the coming of the Light of the World—the celebration of the incarnation.

In a certain sense, it may be comforting for many reading this to understand that this tradition has been practiced for centuries longer than the current (sometimes anxiety-inducing) “traditions” tied to the holiday’s materialistic pursuits and social obligations. The “great cloud of witnesses” that the writer of Hebrews talks about in chapter 12 followed a somber but hopeful tradition of observing this time of waiting in community—solidifying the bonds that tied the early church together and fostering unity and mutual identity in Christ. That’s what Advent does for Christians today as well.

Of course, the tradition of waiting for the Messiah to arrive has been an integral part of the lives of God-followers for thousands of years. One of the main identifiers of the Jewish people since the time of Abraham (and even, arguably, from the time of Adam and Eve; see Genesis 3:15) has been the faith-defining hallmarks of patience and hopefulness as they wait for the promised Messiah to come.

Many of the Old Testament’s most beloved verses detail the hopeful waiting that was at the center of Jewish faith and practice. These are the same verses that Christians throughout the world still read and ponder today as they wait every year for the celebration of the incarnation:

• The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. Deuteronomy 18:15

• Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

• For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:6-7

• But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise—let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy—your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Isaiah 26:19

• “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2

• Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9

• “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” Zechariah 12:10

• “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Malachi 3:1

These and hundreds of other verses in the Old Testament point to the long-awaited Messiah—for whom many adherents of Judaism still wait. When Christians participate in Advent within their families and congregations, they join in that millennia-old tradition of waiting with expectant hope for the coming of the Savior of the world.

Why Observe Advent? Teaching

Speaking of families, Deuteronomy 6:6-7 gives us one critical answer to the question of why we should celebrate Advent: teaching our children to also wait with patient expectation for the coming of the Lord into the world as a baby.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Deuteronomy 6:6-7

The story of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2 is endlessly fascinating, especially to young children. The shepherds resting quietly with their sheep in the fields; the angels appearing in a blinding and deafening display of celebration; the shepherds’ hopeful search for the baby Jesus the angels had described; the image of the baby in the stable with his parents huddling close—all of these images, taught to our children early, endure throughout their lives as the celebration of Christmas approaches every year. Indeed, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

When we observe the season and the service of Advent by lighting the five candles, whether within the context of a church service or of a family gathering, we also carry on the long tradition of allowing our children to ask questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing. The meaning behind the five candles of Advent provides those of us who are parents with wonderful opportunities for leading our children to come to know and believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior.

And what better way could there possibly be for a parent to take their child’s mind off the hype of this materialistic season? The Scripture readings of Advent, as well as that mesmerizing candle lighting tradition, allows all who participate to slow down and consider what the waiting they’re doing is all about.

Why Observe Advent? Personal Preparation for the Season of Christmas

Teaching these things to our children and participating in the Advent season’s beautiful traditions also prepares mature Christians for the season of Christmas. How many beleaguered 21st-century Christians long for what the prophet Isaiah offered when he said,

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31

As we approach the holiday season every year, those of us who observe the Sundays of Advent find an opportunity to calm our hearts and minds and refocus on the true reason behind the season of Christmas: to celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world. This coming changes everything in the lives of believers, allowing hope to permeate our lives and our hearts, and hopefully become a part of our practice in the weeks leading up to the holiday—and beyond.

Hearing the Scriptures repeated before the lighting of each candle brings those who have grown up with the tradition back to their roots. The communal experience of Advent allows individuals to be reminded of their core identity as those whom God loved so much that he sent his only Son into the world to save them (John 3:16). When that profound reminder of God’s intense and eternal love for us is reawakened in our minds, hearts, and imaginations, the season of Christmas takes on a much greater depth of meaning.

It also allows those who participate in it to understand themselves in the context of the greater Christian church around the world. This centuries-old celebration connects individuals and congregations in myriad Christian traditions, centering billions of minds and hearts on the one thing that binds us all together: our identity as those who are loved by God and saved through faith in the sacrifice and resurrection of his Son.

Why Observe Advent? Spiritual Preparation for Christ’s Return

Finally, the observance of Advent (particularly represented in the liturgical color of the three purple candles, reminding us of Lent), helps us to look forward to the coming celebration of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The incarnation, as wonderful and heartwarming and festive as that celebration is, is always followed closely by the reality of the reason behind the incarnation: that baby in the manger would grow up to become the ultimate sacrifice for human sin.

Knowing that this has happened and believing that Jesus’ sacrifice was for each one of us who believe, we now look forward to that amazing day when we will see Jesus come again on the clouds of heaven. The angels who appeared at Jesus’ ascension made this promise to those who watched Jesus leave:

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11

The apostle John reiterated this promise when he wrote:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen. Revelation 1:7

This is why the writer of James wrote,

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. James 5:7-8

This is perhaps the most important result of observing the season of Advent: “standing firm” for the day when we will meet Jesus, whether that happens on the day of his return or on the day of our passing into glory.

What that means is different for each individual, but the apostle Paul instructs us as to what this surely will mean for all who desire to become more and more like Jesus in our daily living:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

By Mike Vander Klipp, Senior Editor in the Zondervan Bible Group of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.

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