What Is Advent For?
If you ask the ordinary Christian what Advent season is about, I think they would say that it is a period of preparation for Christmas. That’s certainly how I understood it until recent years. Just as Lent is known as a period of preparation for remembering and celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ at Easter time, I understood Advent, also known as “Little Lent,” to be a period of preparation for remembering and celebrating the incarnation of God’s Son in the birth of the baby Jesus. The place of Advent in our calendar as being the four-week period before Christmas Day on December 25 certainly lends itself to that understanding. However, while this is true, it is only half the truth.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming.” The Scriptures speak of the coming of Christ in two ways. Christ came to this world the first time in his incarnation and birth. Galatians 4:4–5: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The apostles speak of this coming of Christ as his “appearing” (e.g. 2 Tim. 1:10) or “manifestation” (1 Tim. 3:16). This is the first coming of Christ. But there is also a second coming. Jesus spoke of the future “coming” (Parousia) of the Son of Man (Matt. 24:37). The Apostles refer to it as another “appearing” of Christ at the end time (Col. 3:4; 1 Peter 5:4).
These two comings of Christ are contrasted yet connected. They are contrasted in the manner of his coming. His first coming was, in many ways, hidden and silent. As the opening words of the third verse of Phillip Brooks’s well-known carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” puts it: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” But not so Christ’s second coming. It will be public and loud. Charles Wesley’s hymn “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” captures it well at the beginning of verse 2: “Ev’ry eye shall now behold him, rob’d in dreadful majesty.” If he came the first time in quiet humility to the few, he will come the second time in rapturous glory to the many. If in the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and attended by animals, in the second he will be wrapped in blinding light and attended by angels. In his first coming, he was seen in a lowly manger by the magi; in his second coming, he will be seen on an exalted throne by the multitudes.
What Christ began to do in his first coming, he will return to complete in his second coming.
But the two comings, while distinctly contrasted, are also inseparably connected. They are connected in the way they bookend Christ’s redemptive work. In his first coming Christ came to inaugurate his kingdom (Mark 1:15) and secure redemption for his people (John 6:39). But the kingdom was only provisionally realized; the redemption only partially applied in that first coming. The consummation of the kingdom will only be fully realized (2 Tim. 4:1) and the completion of redemption only be fully applied (Phil. 1:6) in Christ’s second coming. What Christ began to do in his first coming, he will return to complete in his second coming. The two comings of Christ are thus distinct but inseparably connected.
Meditate on Christ’s Second Coming
And this is where observing Advent aright can help us. In its fullest sense, Advent is a season to meditate on the second coming of Christ, while we muse on his first coming. To think only of Christ’s first coming in humility during Advent and not his second coming in glory is to disconnect the bookends of the gospel; it is to neglect the end of our salvation and so negate the beginning of our salvation. It is only half to observe Advent. But our Advent hymns and Christmas carols join what we are prone to separate:
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
And so, this Advent season, let us not separate what God has joined together in his gospel. Perhaps this collect from The Book of Common Prayer (1928) can help us to that end:
May the Lord make you glad during this remembrance of
the birth of His only Son, Jesus Christ;
that as you joyfully receive Him for your redeemer,
you may with sure confidence behold Him
when He shall come to be our judge.
Amen and amen.
Jonathan Gibson is the author of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: A Liturgy for Daily Worship from Advent to Epiphany.
How do you pray to prepare for Advent season?
What is the scope of the work of redemption? What in the world is God working on? What does the final chapter of the grand redemptive story look like?
Jonathan Gibson talks about why liturgy can be such a powerful force for good in the life of the Christian when rightly understood and practiced.
Benjamin Gladd talks about how the Gospel of Luke draws on the riches of the Old Testament to reveal truly amazing things about the identity of Jesus, Old Testament prophecy, and the real meaning of Christmas.