What is Advent?

By Christopher Hunt

December 6, 2017

When I was a kid the closest my family came to observing Advent was to use an Advent calendar one year. Made of printed cardboard in the shape of the classic “Night Before Christmas” house, it had little pull-out tabs for each day that revealed a picture underneath. The last tab, for Christmas Eve, concealed a square of chocolate. This delicious prize produced quite a bit of drama when one of my brothers pulled that tab a couple of weeks early. This may, in fact, be my strongest Advent memory!

In our home, Advent was little more than a countdown to Christmas - and for us kids a countdown to opening presents. Even though Christmas was for us first and foremost about Jesus’ birth, Advent was not part of our family’s annual rhythm. Perhaps you can relate.

So what is Advent? And why should we observe Advent?

During Advent we commemorate Christ’s coming and anticipate His return

The word “advent” descends from the Latin “adventus” and means coming or visiting. In the tradition’s earliest days, Christians regarded Advent as a period of preparation for the baptism of new believers on the day of Epiphany (January 6). They did not associate it closely with Jesus’ birth. However, by the 7th century, Roman Christians had tied Advent to Christ’s appearing...but to his second coming, not his first. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Advent evolved into a season of preparing to both celebrate his birth and anticipate his hoped-for return.

Waiting is the overarching theme of Advent

Today, Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the Western Christian Church. And it’s much more than just a countdown to Christmas. It begins four Sundays before Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Eve. It is a time of hopeful expectation, a time to reflect on our need for the one who came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21b NIV) and to watch for his coming again. Expectant waiting is the overarching theme of Advent and each week focuses on a different posture of anticipation.

Waiting in hope: Not the mere fervent wishing of the modern understanding of hope, but hope that is based in assured faith. “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3).

Waiting in peace: Wholly surrendered and no longer at war with God; the peace the angels were referring to when they sang, “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14b).

Waiting in joy: In Jesus, God the Father fulfills his promise to reconcile his people to himself (Romans 5:6-11); as baby John leapt for joy in his mother’s womb, so also do our spirits leap for a joy that transcends our circumstances (Luke 1).

Waiting in love: In the love of the Father, who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Advent is a time to draw near to God

So, why observe Advent? Above all else, Advent is a time to draw near to God. In the course of day-to-day life, most Christians alternately approach and retreat from God. We see this in the flood and ebb tides of prayer life, regular Bible reading, and doing good works as God’s Spirit leads. James 8:4a promises that if we come near to God, he will come near to us. A season set aside to prepare for the celebration of the coming of God’s son is a meaningful time to draw near to Him.

Advent helps bridge the gulf between the sacred and the secular of Christmas

It’s so easy to get caught up in the secular aspects of Christmas—the shopping, decorating, parties and other festivities. And so, for many Christians, putting first emphasis on the anticipation of the coming of Jesus Christ during Advent helps bridge the age-old gap between the sacred and the secular of the Christmas season. They find drawing close to God enriches all other aspects of the Christmas celebration—fellowship, gift giving, gift receiving...even shopping. Four weeks of focusing on Jesus can help to put everything else in its proper light.

How can I observe Advent?

Well, you can, of course, use an Advent calendar. While my brothers and I certainly didn’t get it, Advent calendars can be a helpful tradition. Many include Bible verses, activities, and other devotional material that help anchor the season in Christ. If you’re looking for an advent calendar activity to use with your kids, check out this fun, Kids Corner Advent Calendar & Devotion. Another traditional fixture is the Advent wreath. Each Sunday families light a candle in the wreath to commemorate the week’s theme—purple for hope, peace, and love; pink for joy; and white on Christmas Day (or Eve). This tradition is also followed in many Christian churches today, and often includes special songs or readings during the worship service.

Of course, calendars and wreaths can be little more than superficial trappings unless combined with substantive worship, prayer, and devotions to seek intimacy with God. An Advent devotional can help focus your Bible reading, reflection, and prayer. There are some good ones out there, including the series, Waiting In Expectation, from Today Devotional publisher ReFrame Ministries. Some devotional materials center on the four Sundays of Advent; others provide daily encouragement and reflection. However you choose to observe Advent, remember that it is far more than simply counting down to Christmas. Focusing your heart on Christ, thanking God for sending him to save us, and expectantly awaiting his return will deepen your celebration of Christmas in all its facets. So much so, that you just might share that square of chocolate from the Advent calendar...maybe.

For more on Advent, visit our Advent Resource Page.

About the author — Christopher Hunt

Chris loves to see God transform lives through the gospel. Prior to joining ReFrame, he served with the global ministry of Awana. Chris also served for 16 years in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve. He studied history at Alma College and has earned a Master's degree at Northern Illinois University. He blogs frequently for Today and all of our ReFrame Ministries sister programs. He and his wife have five children and serve as leaders in their church.

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