The first Sunday of Advent is about much more than just lighting candles and starting the countdown to Christmas.
A great deal of ink has been spilled by those insisting that all Christmas traditions have pagan roots and ought not be celebrated by “real” Christians.
If you go digging deep enough into the jungle of the internet, you’ll doubtlessly find a dodgy webpage that looks like it sprang straight from the 80s describing how Advent is secretly worship of Saturnalias and Thor and your great-aunt’s ginger cat.
All I will say in defense of Advent is that it regularly refocused me on the real reason for Christmas, invaluable for a highly excitable child anticipating presents.
I remember stories better than explanations and out-of-the-ordinary activities better than stories. This tradition stands out as an important moment in my childhood where my parents connected the dots between our desperate need for saving, Christ’s birth, his sacrifice and our miraculous invitation to heaven’s party.
First, though, let’s note that the tradition of advent can vary significantly between denominations. It might look very different in a Catholic or Orthodox household than for a Baptist or nondenominational family. The colors of the candles, the hymns and liturgy, the theme of advent sermons are diverse, but they all point to the same manger-cradle.
In my family, we lit a red candle each Sunday evening leading up to Christmas. My father often read a passage of scripture from one of the gospels.
On Christmas Eve, my mother would hand me and my brother small, white candles along with a stern warning not to catch anything or anyone on fire (or else her wrath would be the most biblical thing we knew that night). I would stare at that tiny, swaying tongue of fire and wonder how our bodies could hold something so hot and fierce as the Holy Spirit.
The Long and Lonely Wait
That first candle on the Advent wreath always has a lonely look, standing between the other dark candles.
In many ways, it’s appropriate that this one represents the prophets. Hebrews 11 is a sobering reminder of how many people hoped in God’s promise of redemption for hundreds of years before Christ was born. “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it” (Hebrews 11:13 NLT).
All four gospels begin with Old Testament prophesy about John the Baptist and Jesus, not-so-subtle reminders of the great weight of history and the waiting that had stretched before the birth of the Son of God.
Some of the most well-known prophesies about Christ’s birth and life are in Isaiah.
“…the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 ESV).
“My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief…. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down….
“But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:2-5).
“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him…. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. He will not falter or lose heart until justice prevails throughout the earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4).
The prophets were very conscious of the reason Christ was coming to earth, much more than we tend to be. To celebrate Christmas is also to anticipate Good Friday and Easter and to long for the second coming.
Cultivating a Long-lasting Hope
To be entirely honest, I’m not much more patient as an adult than I was as a child. When I pray for something or, worse yet, God has promised me something, I want it now, please and thank you.
Meditating on the fact that all of the patriarchs and Old Testament prophets died before they saw God’s biggest, most important promise come to reality is sobering.
It means that even if God doesn’t answer my prayers right away, I still have to trust that he’s good. Even if I don’t see God fulfilling his promises, I have to trust that he will because he’s always faithful to his word.
I hope in a God who does not work on my timeline or even in my lifetime.
That’s hard to accept, and it becomes exponentially more so when I’m suffering, when I’m tired, when I just want relief from the Father. As John Piper pointed out in a sermon, “Hoping in God does not come naturally for sinners like us. We must preach it to ourselves, and preach diligently and forcefully, or we will give way to a downcast and disquieted spirit.”
He goes on to differentiate between the way we use hope versus how scripture uses it: “…biblical hope is not just a desire for something good in the future, but rather, biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.”
In a devotional on hope, David Wilkerson challenged believers, “This should be the normal state for all Christians, not just for well-adjusted, happy believers. God is not mocking his hurting children today; he truly is a God of hope. Paul said, ‘For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance’ (Romans 8:24-25).”
This kind of hope requires patience and confidence. It is deeply alluring to those who have been betrayed by empty promises and are caught by the tumult of the world.
A Spirit of Patient Waiting
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).
When we light the first advent candle and see it standing alone in the dark, we are reminded that we hope in God’s promises, relying on our loving Father who knows what is best not only for us but also for all of humanity throughout all time.
We have an advantage over the Old Testament saints, though. We have the Holy Spirit to patiently bring God’s promises to mind and give us endurance. Each candle we light is a reminder of his presence, not only throughout history but also within each of us.
Until then, we celebrate the Messiah’s first coming and eagerly away that future day when we see Christ face-to-face.