This past Sunday we observed the First Sunday of Advent. What is Advent? Based on my research and understanding, its roots go back to 313 AD, when Constantine the Great, the emperor of the Roman Empire, issued the Edict of Milan, which gave Christians religious freedom. Then he approved the construction of the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the area where Jesus was born. He also declared Jesus’ birthday a national holiday. By the time Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, Christianity had made the transition from being a persecuted sect to being the authorized religion of the Roman Empire. A few years later, in 350AD, Pope Julius I set the official date of Christmas as December 25th. And finally, in 567, the 2nd Council of Tours established the period of Advent as a time of fasting and preparation before Christmas. In more recent times, it has taken root on the Christian Calendar as the four Sundays before Christmas.
That is a brief history of Advent, but what is it? Well it derives from the Greek word “parousia” which means “the appearance, the coming.” It is used in the New Testament 24 times, mostly to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. When the Bible was translated into Latin, the word “parousia” was translated “adventus”, the Latin word for “arrival.” Essentially, Advent is the expectation of and preparation for Jesus’ arrival. Therefore, throughout Christian history, Advent has reminded us of Christ’s two arrivals: his first arrival as a helpless baby in a stable many years ago and his second arrival as a conquering king, which awaits us in the future.
So Advent is about the coming of Christ: reflecting on it, preparing for it. For hundreds of years, Christians took it so seriously, that they fasted in advance of Christmas. Christmas was not about gifts, decorations or eggnog. Jesus Christ has come once, which reminds us he has promised to come back again.
Theologians have long used another term for the Advent of Christ: “the incarnation.” It is based on Matthew 1:22-23, which calls Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” At Christmas, we remember the birth of Jesus Christ and marvel at the amazing fact that God left his home in heaven and became a baby in order to rescue our lost and broken world.
So what does that mean for us? Well first off, I think pondering all of this would give you and me a sense of awe, wonder and thanks. God himself cared enough about us to abandon the glory and splendor of heaven and to come to our tiny rock hanging in space. God must love human beings and think we are very valuable to put forth all that effort. I don’t know about you, but that gives me encouragement and hope during this season in world history!
Secondly, the Bible is clear that every person who claims the name of Christ is to be an imitator of Christ: to follow in his footsteps and to adopt his humble and sacrificial attitude. God did not come into a gold-glinted palace smelling of sweet incense but instead arrived in a tumbledown barn with the pungent scent of straw and manure. That means we are to take the low road of servant-hood instead of the high road to glory. The Apostle Paul framed it this way: “Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don’t think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing. Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3—8, New Living Translation).
I think for many of us, during Advent, we make an extra effort to be more humble and compassionate and generous. We give more money to charities and rally around community needs. But here’s the thing: Why don’t we do that year round, regardless of the holiday? Does Christ only want us to imitate him during Christmas? After all, Advent is not only about his first coming, but his second coming as well.