When I was pregnant with my first child, I did what many expectant moms do. I read about the baby’s growth and looked at amazing pictures of what a child—my child!—looked like at each stage of development. Imagining how my baby was growing only increased my expectancy of his arrival.
Just as the pregnancy was beginning to show, around the middle of November, I began to think about Mary and how she also had surely had the same thoughts I was having about the child growing in her womb. She also must have looked forward to his coming with eagerness. Rather than fretting about the long weeks of waiting, I settled in to a contented expectancy. (Although, I can't say it stayed that way after my due date came and went. My baby boy didn’t make his appearance for 15 more days, but that’s another story!)
Later I learned that the deep sense of expectant waiting that I felt during pregnancy had a name and a season: Advent. Observed by Christians for centuries, Advent describes the period of waiting before Christmas, waiting for our savior to arrive. Whereas Christmas is the fulfillment of God’s promises, the weeks of Advent are the symbol of our hopeful expectation of God coming to us.
Advent is a season of waiting.
We hate to wait, don’t we? Waiting in traffic, waiting for waiting for the new season of our favorite show, waiting for water to boil . . . we are so impatient. Last year, I was waiting for the doctor to call with the results of a biopsy, and every day of waiting felt like a week.
But waiting is an important spiritual discipline. We’re reminded to wait on the Lord and on his purposes. We wait for answers to prayer, and we wait for guidance. During Advent, we remember that we no longer have to wait for a savior. We also remember that we live in the time of “now and not yet,” when Jesus has come and yet is still coming to fulfill all the promises of God.
Advent is a season of expectation.
When I was a little girl, one of my grandmothers gave me an Advent calendar. It was made of cardboard and had a picture of the nativity decorated with glitter on the front. Tiny perforated doors that hid small chocolates and short Bible verses just waited to be opened, one each day until Christmas arrived. The hope of a brightly wrapped chocolate is, to a child, a wonderful thing to anticipate.
However, that calendar was designed to represent a more profound expectation—Immanuel, God with us, fulfilled in Bethlehem. However, the waiting isn’t over yet. We still wait for God to make himself known in our ordinary lives, and we still wait for his final return.
Advent is a season of longing.
About 15 years ago, I took on the challenge of reading the Bible all the way through from cover to cover by reading a little bit every night. About halfway through the Old Testament, I was enjoying the experience very much, praising God with David in the Psalms and pondering the ancient wisdom of the Proverbs.
Then, I started the prophets. Although there are some beautiful passages in the major and minor prophets, there are also long passages in which God’s people are trapped in the painful consequences of their injustice and idolatry and see no way out.
Chapter after chapter, the prophets cry out in the darkness of confusion, violence, and judgment. The people of God feel the absence of God and only belatedly begin to imagine a different world in which God reigns and his children live in his kingdom in peace.
I began to dread my daily Bible reading. I longed for the familiar comfort of the Gospels and the radical grace of the Epistles, but I forced myself to stay with my Old Testament readings. As I did, I became deeply present to the dark waiting that preceded Jesus’ birth.
For centuries, God’s people wondered if they had been forsaken by God, if his promises of peace would ever be fulfilled. Generation after generation, they hoped for a savior whose coming they could not see. Eventually, even the prophets went silent and for centuries, God seemed to go silent.
Advent is a season of hope.
And then, “in the fullness of time,” Mary’s baby was born. The centuries of waiting for God to act came to a close. When I turned the pages of my Bible to Matthew 1, I literally wept. I could feel the profound relief and renewed hope of the gospel story—that God is with us and that God’s kingdom is at hand.
After she waited 40 weeks or so for her baby to arrive, Mary learned that his birth was only the beginning. She and Joseph waited for him to grow up, to see how he would fulfill the promise to save the people from their sins. One awful day, Mary waited beside the cross as her son died. Then, only a few weeks later, she waited in the upper room for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Like Mary, we are still waiting for the final fulfillment of the promise, a never-ending Kingdom of justice and peace.
So this year, let’s enter into the season of waiting for Christmas. Some of us will wait with joy as we experience all the blessings of Jesus’ coming into our lives. Some of us will wait with sorrow as we face the lingering griefs of this human life. But we can all wait with hope, in the words of the Advent hymn:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.