AMAC Exclusive – By Eleanor Vaughn
Looking around, it seems like the entire month of December is Christmas. Judging by store displays, Christmas starts somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving and comes to a dead stop after December 25th. While certainly festive, this timeline is more than a little exhausting. And, if you follow this schedule, you miss out on the beauty and wisdom of Advent.
Advent is the Christian season of preparation, penance, and patience before Christmas. It’s part of the liturgical year established by the Church to give order to the times and seasons and has been celebrated since at least the fifth century. It lasts for the four weeks before Christmas (or roughly the whole month of December) and is followed by the Christmas season, which lasts until January 6th, when the Church celebrates the feast of Epiphany. Advent is a time to reflect on the history of salvation, especially the Old Testament prophets who foretold the coming of a Messiah.
Like Christmas, Advent comes with its own music and its own traditions. Christians around the world look forward to this opportunity to sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” the Advent hymn. The season is associated with purple, sometimes called violet, a solemn color in Church traditions. Its central image is the Advent wreath with its four candles: three purple and one pink. Each candle represents a week, and the next one cannot be lit until we reach the next week. Everything we do reminds us that we are waiting and preparing for Christmas.
Advent is a teaching season, and its lessons are as fresh as ever. It’s no secret to anybody that we are impatient these days, used to getting what we want when we want. Advent presents an opportunity to learn patience and practice it in our daily lives. It’s very hard to get better at something without practicing, and this is especially true when it’s something as difficult as being patient. Advent is a structured and organized time to work on patience.
If you’ve ever been in one of the many Christmas performances that take place around this time of year, you might recognize the benefits of this kind of steady practice. Every band concert, choir performance, and production of the Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol is built on daily practice, sometimes for months, when children and adults are running through their pieces, ironing out the rough spots, polishing the smallest of details. All of these beautiful performances of this season are tangible examples of the power of practice, and Advent calls us to apply that kind of practice to virtue. After all, we wouldn’t expect to be a good musician or dancer or actor or athlete without practice—why should we expect to become a good person without similar dedication?
We often hear the phrase “patience is a virtue”. So it’s a bit ironic that patience isn’t one of those virtues that most of us spend a lot of time on. Aside from a vague notion that it’s supposed to be a good thing, we don’t often consider why patience is good. If anything, the downsides are easier to see. Patience certainly doesn’t appear to be intrinsically interesting or glamorous. Events and circumstances in our lives don’t often get better because we sat around and patiently waited for them to change.
But that’s where the beauty and wisdom of Advent comes in. For believers who know the joy of Christ in their lives, we know whose life and who’s coming into the world we are waiting to celebrate on December 25th. That’s how this sacred season before Christmas each year teaches us that patience is deeply connected with the cultivation of hope, something we can all use more of.
We lack many things in this chaotic world of ours, but none is more dangerous than a drought of hope. Without hope, every crisis is another arrow pointing towards despair. Without hope, we are in danger of abandoning the basic goods of humanity—starting families, sharing our history, creating a future better than our present. Advent invites us to reset our vision and our hopes.
But the patient wait for Christmas doesn’t just leave us with more hope. This weekend we mark the third Sunday of Advent, which the Christian churches call Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for “rejoice.” It is represented on the advent wreath by the one pink candle among the other three purple candles – and it reminds us that there can be joy in waiting. Hope does not have to mean drudgery or mere obligation. Rather, hope can be joyful, and Advent encourages us to recognize this with a Sunday dedicated to joy.
So this Advent season, as Christians around the world wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord and Savior, we should remember that joy doesn’t have to be rationed, saved only for special occasions. It can be found in the everyday, the moments of preparation and anticipation that fill our December: the opening of the days in the Advent calendar, the wrapping of presents, the making of cookies and cakes. Yet these small joys are mere tastes of greater joys ahead when the waiting is done and our hope is realized. And one day, all our Christmas joy will be completely overshadowed by the only thing greater than the birth of a savior—His return.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.