As an Old Testament scholar and a lover of all things Christmas, the Advent season holds a special place in my heart. I’m not from a particularly liturgical background, so I’m not thinking of the purple candles or days of fasting or anything like that. Rather, Advent is the one time of year when one has an excuse to actively re-enter the world of the community of faith as it was before the advent (coming) of the Messiah; a time when we, who eagerly and expectantly pray for the second coming of Christ, may pause to reach across the millennia and share a sense of fellowship with those who eagerly and expectantly prayed for the first coming of the Messiah.
And yet, aside from the lighting of the Advent candles (and even that is going by the wayside in some contexts), most church-going Christians (Protestants especially) will hardly even notice that the weeks leading up to Christmas are anything other than “the holidays,” or the “Christmas season.” In particular, few churches or Christians will spend much time reflecting directly upon the relationship between the Old Testament and the coming of the Messiah, let alone the connection between their own situation and that of the people in the community of faith living before the advent of the Messiah.
The question that I want to address is simple: So what? Who cares? I mean, we Christians confess that the arrival of Jesus is the center-point of history; why not just skip the arcane, liturgical mumbo-jumbo, forget about ancient, pre-Christian history, and just start celebrating the birth of Jesus with full force, beginning the day after Thanskgiving? What’s the point of waiting?
Well, there are many very good reasons for intentionally creating a sense of anticipation during the Advent season by doing little things that will help us to actively and imaginatively re-enter the world of the ancient, expectant, faithful “Old Testament” believer. Here are just a few of them:
1) A heightened sense of anticipation. Creating a sense of delay and eager expectation (by, for example, studying from Isaiah 7-9 rather than Luke 1-3 in your daily devotional time) can actually heighten the sense of celebration that we feel on Christmas Day. Often by Christmas the regular churchgoer is ready to be done with the Christmas story, having had their fill of songs on the radio, four consecutive sermons on the Christmas story in a row, and one or more Christmas pageants (usually poorly performed by 5 year old actors who can’t remember their lines anyway). Doing little things to re-focus upon the OT sense of anticipation might take the edge off of this feeling of burn-out and revive our feelings of awe and thankfulness as we celebrate the first coming of the Messiah on Christmas morning.
2) Getting comfortable with the OT. It can be a good excuse to become more literate about the first 75% of the Bible, and it might help some of us to get over our feeling of overwhelmed puzzlement and intimidation at the Old Testament. When we do little things to consider how the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings point to the magnificent arrival of the Messiah, our sense of estrangement and alienation from the Hebrew Scriptures lessens.
3) Connecting with the ancients. Actively attending to Advent in this way can help us to feel a deep connection with ancient individuals who otherwise seem foreign and strange to us. This sense of connection can deepen our sense of cosmic purpose and help us to see our place in history.
4) Fresh life through new traditions. By looking for ways to intentionally and imaginitively recreate that period of expectation, you can reconfigure your experience of Christmas in a new and exciting way. Chances are you find at least one Christmas tradition old and tiresome. Or, perhaps there are traditions that you enjoy, but you don’t stop to think about where they came from or what they mean anymore–you just do them mechanically. In order to bridge that gap between yourself and the world of the pre-Messiah faithful, you will have to thoughtfully and reflectively develop some new traditions. This will breathe new life into your Christmas celebrations, and it will help you to see the true meaning of Christmas in a fresh, exciting way
Well, then, how can one be more intentional about doing Advent in this way? After all, today was the last Sunday of Advent; perhaps I am a day late, and more than a dollar short. In a future post, I’ll address the how in more detail, possibly returning to this topic next November. For now, though I’ll make this one modest, simple suggestion: This week, in your own devotional prayer time, pick an OT passage containing verses cited in the Christmas story to read and study (see below). Then, on Christmas Eve, if you have a family gathering (as many of us do), offer to read one of these passages to everyone gathered there. This will be one simple way that you can heighten the sense of anticipation, become more familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, and breathe new life into your holiday traditions.
Have a blessed Advent, and a very merry Christmas!
Some key OT passages cited in the Christmas stories: Isaiah 7:14; Jeremiah 31:15; Micah 5:2. See also Isaiah 9:2-7; 11.