This Advent Will Change You
The Habit of Waiting for Christmas
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Advent is finally here.
Over the years, in the days following Thanksgiving, I have reached instinctively for two prized possessions. One is a Beach Boys Christmas compact disc I came into sometime in the late 90s, a tradition which now has slowly but sweetly faded away. The other item, which has served my soul much better, and continues to do so to this day, is Donald Macleod’s book The Person of Christ. I’ve taken Advent as an annual reminder to take up reading on christology. I try to branch out some each year, but it always includes at least a little rereading of Macleod.
The opportunity of Advent, to remember the real reason for Christmas, is perhaps all the more poignant in our increasingly secular society. With every passing year, we have to be more vigilant, even aggressive and relentless, to remind ourselves, and our children, and our churches, what really is the heart and inspiration of Christmas.
Habits for the Holidays
We are, by nature, creatures of habit. Such is not the product of the fall, but of God’s good design. Good habits help us flourish by enlisting our subconscious to carry out repeated functions so that we can direct our limited bit of attentiveness and conscious intentionality elsewhere.
Of course, sin plays havoc with our habits too, but an important part of practical redemption and holiness, by the power of the gospel and God’s Spirit, is the creation, over time, of new habits — habits of holiness and fellowship, daily habits of hearing God’s voice in his word and having his ear in prayer, and weekly habits of belonging to, and gathering with, his body in worship.
“Advent will confront you, and make you more like Scrooge or more like the shepherds.”
Habits, however, are not just daily and weekly but annual as well. God made seasons (Genesis 1:14). He made us to feel something deep down in those first days of spring, in the hottest days of summer, in the coziness of fall, and in the first snow-fly of winter. And for Christians, we have long linked the month of December with the birth of our Savior, and anticipated one of our two highest feast days with essentially a month of liturgical anticipation called “Advent.”
Season of Waiting
One vital aspect and offering of this season is often missed today: Advent is a season of waiting. Whereas Lent, as a season, encourages a kind of whole-life consecration in anticipating the marking of Jesus’s final week — and especially his sacrificial death for us on Good Friday, and his victorious resurrection for us on Easter Sunday — Advent’s particular note is one of patient waiting.
Each year, in our month of waiting to mark the arrival of God himself in human flesh, we remember the people of God who waited centuries — centuries! — for the coming of the promised Messiah to rescue them. They had God’s promises: a “seed of the woman” who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15; Romans 16:20), a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18; Acts 3:22; 7:37), a priest who would surpass the first-covenant order (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:4–6; 7:11–17), a son of king David and heir to his throne (Isaiah 9:7; Matthew 1:1; 22:42) who would be greater than David, as his Lord (Psalm 110:1). For centuries, God’s people waited.
They “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us” (Hebrews 11:39–40). We now live in the era of the Messiah. Christ has come as the climax of history and shown us the Father and his purposes. It is good for us, though, to rehearse the patient waiting and anticipation of God’s ancient people to renew and deepen our appreciation of what we now have in him.
For this reason, Advent is a season of minor chords, captured so well in “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” As we wait, we replay the centuries of longing and yearning that preceded the coming of Christ, and in doing so, our joy in and gratitude for what we have in Christ deepens and enriches and sweetens. And we too live with longing and yearning — for Jesus’s second coming — even as our waiting now takes on a fundamentally new shape, and rises to previously unforeseen levels of hope and anticipation, and joy in the waiting, because of his first coming.
Then, on Christmas Day, those minor chords break into the bright, festive major chords of “Joy to the World,” resolving the tension of ages past, even as they point us to the second coming for which we hope.
Advent Will Change You
God’s good and powerful gift of habit teaches us an important truth for the Advent season: Holidays and feasts not only fill our mouths with laughter, and bellies with food, but shape our souls, for good or ill.
“As we wait, we replay the centuries of longing and aching anticipation that preceded the coming of Christ.”
December is the single most distinctive month in our society. It has its own special décor and music. It has the most distinguishing feel. Few publicly dispute its claim to being “the most wonderful time of the year”; most play along. Now December is here, and you cannot help but be affected. Advent will confront you, and make you more like Scrooge or more like the shepherds, who glorified and praised God (Luke 2:20). Come December 25, you will be different, to some degree, whether more like Herod or more like the magi, who “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).
This Advent will change you. You will not be the same afterwards. You will be the better for it, or the worse. Every Advent matters. Will you be closer to Christ come December 25 or further away? Will you be softer to him or more callous? Will more fog lie between your eyes and his face, or will you see him with greater clarity and savor him with greater fervor? Will you know and enjoy Jesus more?
Come, Let Us Adore Him
Let’s not go through the motions this Advent. Let’s approach the season by faith (Romans 14:23), as God’s people, for Christ’s honor and our joy in him. Join us this Advent in admiring the diverse excellencies of Christ: he is God and man, holy and virgin-born, upholding the universe by the power of his words and lying swaddled in a manger.
Would you make a particular effort with us to see and savor the person of Christ this Advent? He is worthy of our best daily, weekly, and annual habits.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.