Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 13, 2004 Herald Journal
Pastor's Column

Advent – a time to prepare for the real season of Christmas

By Pastor Elizabeth Hadler, Montrose United Methodist Church

It was once brought to my attention that our culture considers the season we are now in the “Christmas season.” As people of faith, we know this is not accurate, for the season we are in the midst of is really the “Advent season.”

So why is this time of year most commonly called the “Christmas season?”

Well, you can hear the cashiers’ scanners clicking, can’t you? In fact, if we didn’t know better, we would think that the “Christmas season” started back around Halloween or before, when all the stores started putting out their Christmas decorations, gifts, and advertisements.

The Christmas shopping season seems to get longer every year. Yet, conversely, the church has actually shortened its Advent season over the centuries.

Until the fourth century, and before Christmas, itself, was officially observed, there was a church season running from Nov. 11 (St. Martin’s Day) to Jan. 6 (Epiphany). Unlike the extended consumer season today, however, this was a kind of winter Lent—40 days of prayer and fasting, penitence, and self-denial in preparation for the baptisms that would take place on Epiphany.

Clearly, this was not a season that the modern secular society would glean much business from. Even now, we don’t see too many “Lent sale” signs hanging up in our department stores, do we?

Well, by the sixth century, the church had begun to celebrate Christmas, and reorganized its calendar to accommodate it. The season of winter Lent was shortened to four weeks and given the name Advent (“coming”).

Even though the penitential aspect of this season has thoroughly been lost to us in practice, we still recall that original focus by clothing the altar in purple (the color of penitence). Appropriately, the joy of Christ’s impending entry into the world should remain tempered with the recognition of our own sins and shortcomings.

But, somehow, we have managed to move from this tempered vision of joy to a full-out celebration of the human ability to completely misconstrue God’s intended purpose through the birth of Jesus Christ. Truly, Advent has been transformed from a season of preparing for Christ’s birth into a condensed exercise of self-conscious absorption with things and money, grabbing, and getting.

It is up to us, as people of God, to transform Advent from being labeled as nothing more than the last “so many” days before Christmas. Sounds simple, but it is truly a challenging task.

There’s no question that it’s a beautiful time of year, full of excitement and anticipation, and profits galore for many (and debt for others). And that’s what really comes to mind when we hear the words “Christmas season.”

But, what if we focus our attention more on the correct naming: “Advent season?” It is a season also filled with excitement and anticipation, for the coming of the Christ Child, God’s only Son.

During the season of Advent, we are to again “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make straight his path.” A major part of this preparation, according to John the Baptist and other prophets before him, is repentance—turning from our sin and truly changing our ways. Then, we ask for forgiveness and truly seek to realize newness in Jesus Christ.

Certainly, this does not sound nearly as exciting as “decking the halls” and singing “White Christmas,” but it is an essential means of preparing for the real season of Christmas—when Jesus Christ is born.

Don’t get me wrong – I, too, love and enjoy many of the more secular preparations for Christmas, but too often, they tend to get in the way of our most important preparations.

This Advent season, I challenge each and every one of us to stop at least one time each day and notice what God is doing in our lives, and how to truly receive, with open, exciting, and ready arms and hearts, the best gift of all—the Christ Child.

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