My wife and I recently spent an evening out discussing our childhood memories of the holiday season. I didn’t have much to share. I am an only child raised by a single mother, so the discussion of Christmas tradition is a short one with me. One year, I remember convincing my mother to leave the decorations in the back of the closet. I didn’t feel like retrieving them and the fuss wasn’t worth livening up a house for two. She still regrets that one.
As a member of a small family who put very little thought or preparation into the Christmas season, it’s not a surprise that we got very little out of it. The season consisted of a few presents, an artificial tree, and visits with rarely-seen family members. Rinse, repeat.
One year my mother wanted to inject some meaning into the holiday, and it’s the only memory that stands out for me. I remember complaining when my mother said we were going to read the Bible before opening presents. Specifically, we read about the birth of Jesus. I was anxious to unwrap new toys, I’m sure, but I remember sitting there as a frustrated adolescent while my mother opened the scriptures and read aloud the birth narrative.
Fast forward several years. My wife and I are now awaiting a birth of our own. We’re just a few weeks away from the arrival of our baby boy. For the last several months, we’ve endured a wide range of emotions, asked questions, considered names, asked more questions, discussed parenting techniques, and prepared our home. We have painted and rearranged, registered and unwrapped, laughed and cried. We have inhabited our own advent season.
Advent is the term that the church ascribes to the four weeks before Christmas, but it’s not a religious term. Advent is the Anglicanized form of the latin word “adventus,” which means “arrival” or “coming.” It is the preparation—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—for an arrival of someone or something. The term is often linked to the ancient Roman world where Caesar or a dignitary would visit a region, and the town would spring into action to make way for the arrival of the heralded figure.
However, adventus in the ancient world was proportional to how the person arriving was regarded. Adventus could refer to a spouse coming home, a visit from a neighbor, or the arrival of a royal figure. Adventus is not defined by pageantry; instead, it’s one part of the spectrum.
For years, my wife and I have largely stuck to the same familial script that I grew up with. Since it’s just the two of us, we often drive several hours to spend time with family. Some years we’ve had to take to the road on Christmas Day just to make appearances in multiple places. The result is a hurried season, an advent without any reflection or celebration. Consequently, the arrival of Christmas came and went, just like it always has. A season without meaning. A season of going through the motions.
Our hope is different with our new arrival. For the first time, we’re realizing what it actually means to await the arrival of a baby boy. The Advent story resonates in a deeper way, knowing some of the emotions that must have been present within Joseph and Mary. The nerves, the anxiety, the excitement, the joys, the fears. They’re present with us as well. We’re also ready to bring meaning into the season as we carve out new family traditions.
Adventus hasn’t changed since the early tradition; the arrival is as meaningful as you make it. I don’t believe this is about guilt or an attempt to force meaning into the season. The birth of Jesus has been a freely given gift from the beginning, and any attempts to inject meaning for the sake of religion is empty and meaningless. Instead, I believe this is an invitation to realize that the Advent season can envelop you as you wait with hope—or it can slip right by if you are not prepared.
May we allow ourselves to breathe in this hurried season, may the familiar come alive in new, vibrant ways, and may we prepare the way for the Lord to fill our lives with love, peace, and joy this Advent season.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.