The best thing about Thanksgiving being over is that we now officially get to start listening to Christmas music. But this year, I broke the “wait until after Thanksgiving” rule in a big way.
My friend and I co-lead a church “small group” that studies the Bible, prays for each other, and generally gets to know each other and has fun together. We decided that we wanted to create Advent calendars for each of the women in our group. This entailed writing out a Christmas-themed thought or Bible verse for each of the first 25 days in December. We then printed out these little bits of text and sealed them in envelopes labeled 1 through 25. From today until Christmas Day, the women will open one envelope every day and hopefully be encouraged by the verse/thought throughout the day. In order to make sure we could give the calendars to our group before December 1, we finished them well before Thanksgiving – thus prompting more than a little Christmas caroling when I was home alone one day in early November.
Advent calendars are one of the traditional ways Christians celebrate the weeks leading up to Christmas, preparing our hearts for the arrival of Christ on earth. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church (i.e., a church heavily focused on seasons like Advent or Lent), but I’m naturally attracted to the symbols and traditional readings that characterize the church calendar so I’ve taught myself a bit about it over the years. (Also, the church I’ve attended ever since moving to Boston – Park Street Church – uses the liturgical calendar in some ways during its services.)
One thing I learned this year while creating the Advent calendar is that the church calendar contains two cycles: the Christmas Cycle (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany) and the Easter Cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost). Each cycle begins with a season of preparation symbolized by the color purple and ends with a celebratory season symbolized by the color white. After each cycle, there is an ordinary time of growth symbolized by the color green. (from United Methodist Church website)
Epiphany (the “twelve days of Christmas”): white
Ordinary Time: green
Ordinary Time: green
Purple has been my favorite color for the past several years because I find it to be the perfect mixture of pain and joy. Blood red combined with the blue of peaceful water becomes longing, hopeful purple. This makes it the perfect color for Advent, the season of waiting for the Messiah.
While writing the text for December 15 of the Advent calendar, I couldn’t help but transition from humming a few bars of Christmas carols to belting out full choruses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I was writing about a story that demonstrates the Advent spirit of longing and hoping. Simeon had served God his entire life, waiting to see his promised Messiah and the salvation of Israel and the entire world. Here’s what I wrote:
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah…Simeon took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’” Luke 2:25-32
Simeon had been waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise for his whole life. Israel had been waiting since God had promised David a kingdom that would never end; Abraham had been waiting since God promised him descendants like the sands of the sea. And the world had been waiting since God told the serpent in the Garden of Eden that one was coming who would crush his head; Adam and Eve’s sin was not the end of the story.
In this season of Advent, we remember the long years of waiting for God’s redemption: “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!” We also rejoice that we live in the era of the fulfillment of God’s promise: “The thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!”
I couldn’t help but joyfully burst into song when I thought about God’s beautiful story of redemption, which he has been writing since the beginning of the world – and even before the beginning of the world. When I see the brokenness of this world and of my own soul, I am thrilled that God would send a Messiah, not to save Israel from the earthly oppression of the Romans but for a deeper and wider, eternal salvation. He came to save the world from the chains of sin.
I also sang because these verses reminded me about how long the world had desired Emmanuel, “God with us.” They knew God in the Old Testament way, but they hadn’t yet seen God become flesh in the person of Jesus. For thousands of years, people had trusted that God’s salvation was coming but they died with the promise unfulfilled. They never got to know Jesus the way I know him.
I was overcome in that moment by how much I love him. I know him, speak with him, and love him as I know, speak with, and love the closest people in my life, except even more deeply. And I am grateful beyond words to live when I do because I wouldn’t want to imagine a different kind of relationship with God; my relationship with Jesus is the most important, most real, and most hopeful thing in my life. How can I keep from singing?
Of course, the spirit of Advent – the waiting, the longing, the hoping – remains. Our world is still broken, still fallen, still in need of redemption. Today at church, we sang several Christmas hymns. As I mentioned, I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church, so I’m often surprised and delighted at the lyrics in the later verses of many hymns, even the familiar ones. I noticed today that the final verses of several Advent hymns talk about how we’re still waiting for Christ. We’re waiting for him to come again and make all things new.
We live in an interesting era, when the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled but the final consummation of that promise hasn’t yet been realized and won’t be until Christ comes again. In one of my high school Bible classes, our teacher told us that the theological phrase to describe this idea is “already and not yet.” I don’t know if that’s a real theological phrase, but I think it describes the concept well.
So while we rejoice in knowing Jesus personally, we continue to trust God that the small glimpses of redemption we see are but small tastes of what things ought to be, and what things will be. Until that day, we continue to wait, and long, and hope.