Themes of Advent
I wasn’t introduced to the themes of the Advent season until my wife and I attended Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin almost ten years ago. I remember listening to our Pastor teach our congregation about the meaning of Advent and why Christians for centuries have focused on particular themes and truths during this time of year, the days leading up to Christmas.
Traditionally during Advent (the season leading up to Christmas, including the four Sundays preceding Christmas) a different theme holds focus with each new Sunday, and it carries this focus throughout the week until the next Sunday. Different Christian traditions have slightly different takes on these themes. So the four that I will highlight may differ from others. But here are four traditional Christian themes of the Advent season.
Week One: Hope
Sometimes this theme is associated with the prophets of the Old Testament and their foretelling of the coming Messiah, who will set right the wrongs in the world. Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah (11:6-8):
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear. The cub and the calf will lie down together. The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra. Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
This is quite a vision. Lions eating at the hay trough with cows. Children playing hide-and-seek with cobras. These words cast a vision of a world where dangers have been eradicated, where predators no longer seek to take life from prey. All creation lives together in peace.
This vision does not describe our world now. It looks ahead to a day of a new order. And so this theme of hope during Advent is one that sets its eyes on the return of Jesus Christ, who will one day come back to set things right in our world. As Christ came two millennia ago as a little child, Christ will come again and fulfill the prophecies of old.
Week Two: Preparation
Wrapping presents, mixing cookie batter, hanging wreaths, we all take part in preparation for Christmas. It is almost unavoidable. If we allow them to, these acts of preparation can point us to a deeper preparation that we are all invited into. For God has opened for all of us a chance to prepare for God’s arrival. Again, from the book of Isaiah:
“Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
As with the theme of hope, the theme of preparation can be tied to the return of the Messiah. Preparing for that day means to repent of our harmful and destructive actions. It means to show care for all people, especially those who are most vulnerable to harm. It means to draw near to God and to allow God’s Spirit to change us and shape us for the return of Christ.
But we must also prepare for the ways that God arrives in our lives by God’s Spirit today as well. And so the season of Advent asks us, “How can you prepare yourself, your life, for the work of God in your life right now?”.
Week Three: Joy
This theme is often associated with the shepherds who received the news from an angel of the Lord that the Messiah had been born. I’ve always been struck by how it was that the shepherds received the news, in terror. God could have informed the shepherds of the news of Christ’s birth through another person, or even somehow through one of the sheep! Nope. God sent a terrifying messenger to share the joyful news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. It was like bombs going off in the sky. The magi got off easy by comparison. They found out by looking at the stars.
Sometimes we have to face our fears before we can receive joyful news. But joyful news does come. Eventually, joyful news does come. And Advent has traditionally been a time for Jesus followers to practice the joy of good news despite all the other evidence to the contrary.
Week Four: Love
At Christmas time, retailers will sometimes ask customers if they’d like to “round up” their purchase to the nearest dollar at checkout. The difference is then donated to a particular charity. This is just one way that people are encouraged to be generous during this time of year, a way to demonstrate love and compassion to others in tangible ways during Christmas, like Scrooge on Christmas morning.
Advent is a time for all of us to consider showing love to others. It is also, and even more so, a time for us to pause and consider the ways that we are loved by God in Jesus Christ.
Love was God’s motivation for sending Jesus the Messiah. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he sent His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not sent his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
May God bless you this Advent season.