Evangelicals have historically not done Advent, but when we have, we’ve done it, well, wrong.
Advent is a season of the Church calendar, which, in the aftermath of the Reformation, many Protestants ceased observing. Not that there was much wrong with the Church calendar, except that protestants stopped capitalizing the word “church,” referring as it did to the One Holy Catholic Church, which Protestants no longer acknowledged. There were many churches, not One. So we tended to avoid all things that even smelled Catholic, including the Church calendar.
It was kind of a baby and bathwater thing.
When Evangelicals came on the scene, they were part of the anti-calendar group. Christmas and Easter were celebrated, but more as events and not as seasons. And the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent were out, along with special days like Trinity Sunday and the different feasts.
It wasn’t until after Pam and I were married that we were part of a Baptist church that had an Advent Wreath, which I thought was pretty cool. And soon after that I noticed other Baptist churches observing Advent. I learned that it was a period of waiting for the Christ-child to be born, an anticipation which was fulfilled on Christmas Even when the Christ Candle is lit. So, I learned, Advent is a month-long season of preparation for Christmas.
What I learned was wrong. Oops.
I should have known just by looking at the word itself. “Advent” doesn’t mean waiting; look it up. It in fact means that the waiting is over. Advent means onset, beginning, arrival, and strictly speaking refers, not to the birth of the Messiah, but to the onset of the Kingdom of God. True, the coming of the Messiah was seen as a necessary part of the Kingdom’s arrival, but not as the sum total.
It’s no wonder that we messed up the observance of Advent, because the Kingdom of God is by-and-large absent from Evangelical theology and teaching. Evangelicals teach about Heaven after death, but when teaching about the Kingdom of God tend to do one of two things: equate the Kingdom of God with Heaven, or treat it as a temporary earthly sojourn, an in-between time that is better than what we have to put up with now but not as good as what we get when we die and go to Heaven. But that’s not exactly how Jesus treated it. Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, not the Good News of Heaven. And there’s a difference.
The in-betweeness that Jesus taught was that time between when something begins and when it is completed, and no part of the Kingdom of God is ever seen as temporary. The Kingdom of God is eternal, and not just eternal in the heavens but eternal on earth as well. When it comes in its fullness it won’t just be for people who have died and gone to Heaven, but it will be for all flesh and all Creation—animal, vegetable and mineral, the heavens and the earth. A vision of the future in which the only place where God’s will is done is after we die and go to Heaven is contrary to Jesus’ prayer that God’s Kingdom would come and his will be done on earth as well as in Heaven.
It’s actually not proper to talk about The Advent, because there are not one but two advents: the first coming of Christ, and the second coming of Christ, but once again the emphasis is on the Kingdom of God. In the first Advent, the coming of Christ signifies that the Kingdom of God is, to use Jesus’ phrase, at hand. It’s beginning, it has arrived—not fully, no, but look around and see that it is breaking out all around you. The second Advent signifies the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. It is no longer at hand but fully present; no longer coming but actually here; no longer arriving but arrived.
So the celebration of Advent is a yearly reminder, not that we live in a between-time of earthly existence before heavenly reward, but rather that we live in the mean-time between the initiation of the Kingdom of God and its final and eternal fruition.
Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of three Advents. The first is when Christ came to humankind as a human; the third is when he comes again to reveal what is right and what is not, what belongs in the Kingdom and what doesn’t fit. (This is what is meant when the early Christians said that Jesus was coming again to judge the world; not, as is commonly taught, that he came to condemn some and save others.) These are historical realities that all will experience. But the second advent, according to Bernard, is when Jesus comes into our hearts. This advent is open to all but reality only to those who are able to receive it. And all three advents are necessary for the Kingdom of God to come in fullness in a person’s life.