The word “advent” simply means “coming.” When used in a Christian setting like ours, it refers to the arrival of Jesus Christ in the world.
For the people of God, however, Advent usually has much more to do with waiting than arriving. The four outer candles on the candelabra represent the four centuries of waiting between the end of the Old Testament and the Messiah’s birth. In our own observance, Advent involves lots of repetition—deliberate redundancy in the decorations, the traditions, and even the words themselves. Week after week this year, we will hear the same phrases used again and again: “Servant of the Lord,” “Isaiah’s Servant songs,” “This morning we light candle ___, which reminds us of…” The repetition is a deliberate reminder that an inherent part of Advent waiting.
These days, we rarely need to wait for anything, and our lives are diminished because of it. There’s a precious kind of beauty in celebrating something in the same way for decades—perhaps even the same way we did as a child. Old familiar forms take on new meanings as we grow, while the very repetition itself becomes our trainer in the work, the wonder, and the worship of waiting.
Yet Advent waiting shouldn’t be merely passive. If there’s anything we learn from Jesus’ first Advent, it’s that many of the people who were “waiting” for the Messiah were pathetically unprepared when He finally appeared. It’s an instructive lesson in how to wait—namely, with a humble heart and a ready mind. We want to make sure we don’t repeat their mistake and find ourselves woefully unprepared when Jesus comes the second time. Advent, then, is a season for repentance and change as much as it is a season of hope and anticipation.
In short, the waiting helps us keep the true meaning of Christmas in mind throughout the whole season. In a culture where Christmas is so heavily commercialized and secularized, it’s a welcome relief to punctuate the madness with four weekly opportunities to return to the same rituals, reflect on their meaning, and refocus on the real Reason for the season.
“Today we light Candle One,” as the reader will say. Just like someone said last year and the year before that and the year before that. An eloquent, wordless reminder that we. Are still. Waiting.