Advent is a season of preparation for the celebration of the birth of our Lord. It spans four Sundays in the West and forty days in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and in both it is traditionally a time of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Of all the seasons of the Christian year, it is perhaps the one that has lost the most ground to our culture. The weeks of Advent are times of parties and celebrations, instead of fasting. The quiet, meditative season has given way to one of great hustle and bustle. The period of almsgiving has become the high holy days of materialism. The Christmas season, which traditionally followed Advent and began on Christmas day, now begins on Halloween and ends December 25th. It has mutated into a festival involving reindeer, elves, and talking snowmen. The “happy holidays” celebrated by our culture have very little to do with the nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Unlike Scrooge, I am not altogether against our December festivities. Christmas is by far the most joyful celebration of the secular year. It is a time of family reunions and celebrations unlike any other. But for us it should be different. It should be better. We Christians need to reclaim Advent and Christmas. We need to turn them into celebrations of the nativity, the incarnation, and our salvation. They should be times of great hope and tremendous joy.
We should use these days before Christmas to prepare to meet the Christ Child. Like the magi, we should prepare for the journey to see him on Christmas day. The magi understood who Jesus was better than most of his disciples did during his lifetime. Just consider the gifts they gave him: gold for the king, frankincense for worship, and myrrh for burial. What strange and very prophetic gifts! They surely understood that Jesus was divine.
Picture the magi as they traveled down dry, dusty roads, day after day, perhaps for weeks. Consider them at the end of the day, sitting by a fire, talking amongst themselves. Think of their apprehension. Think of their conversation. “What will he be like?” “Will he look different?” “Will he be regal?” “What will his parents be like?”
They traveled for days, weeks, perhaps months, and for what purpose? Just to catch a glimpse of Jesus as a baby. He had nothing to offer them. They went simply to look, to worship, and to present gifts. As far as we can tell from the biblical account, they didn’t stay long; they just came with their gifts and left.
What the magi did was unusual. The city of Bethlehem had never seen such travelers before, nor would they see them again. For the journey of the magi was unprecedented. It cost them great expense and considerable time. It certainly ran against the cultural mainstream.
This is what we are called to do this Advent: to make a spiritual journey to meet the Christ Child. Like the magi, we need to prepare for the pilgrimage, for it will take many weeks. We need not be concerned about being out of step with others who are not following the same paths, for our cause is just and our goal is noble. Let us not be distracted from our calling by the December holiday parties. Like the magi, let us pursue our task with fortitude.
How do we prepare our souls to meet the Christ Child? The church tells us that we should fast so that our bodies will appreciate the feast. We should pray so that our souls are tuned towards God. We should give alms so that we consider the material needs of the poor instead of our own. We prepare quietly, contemplatively, worshipfully. If we do this, when the great feast comes on December 25th, we are ready to begin the celebration of Christmas, not to end it.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Rediscovering Advent” first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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