More than just candles and calendars

For many contemporary Christians, the Advent season is simply a prelude to the holidays, a countdown to Christmas.

It’s marked by colourful calendars dispensing chocolates on a daily basis, a foretaste of the stocking stuffers to be enjoyed on Christmas morning. In some traditions, the four Sundays are observed by lighting a series of candles whose original symbolism often eludes the average modern churchgoer. And for those who measure time by the weekly TV schedule, ‘tis the season when favourite shows get pre-empted by holiday programming.

But in addition to calendars, candles and TV specials, Advent is also marked by music – hymns and carols of an ancient vintage like the popular “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” Written centuries ago, these songs retain a key focus of Advent that is often overlooked at present. They not only anticipate the manger at Bethlehem, they look beyond it to the final redemption of all things at the end of the age.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of hell Thy people save, and give them victory o’er the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Celebrating the first and second coming of Jesus

The church has celebrated the season of Advent since the earliest times. But this celebration has always recognized the vital link between the birth of Jesus and His return. Even the original Latin name of the holiday, adventus, is a translation of the Greek parousia, the term used in the New Testament for the second coming of Christ.

It could hardly be otherwise. The Christmas story cannot be properly understood or appreciated outside of God’s grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. At the right moment, God sent His Son to enter history as a man in order to save His people from their sins. The baby at Bethlehem was born to die, but also to rise, return and reign forever. Consequently the celebration of His birth looks all the way back to the beginning of time and all the way forward to its end. The best Advent hymns reflect this eternal scope.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The final redemption of the whole creation

The Incarnation signalled far more than just the salvation of individual sinners. It heralded the rescue of the whole creation, undoing the effects of the fall and renewing the entire cosmos in the form of the new heavens and the new earth. This, too, can be found in the oldest songs of Advent, such as “Creator of the Stars of Night,” written sometime between 600 and 800 AD.

Creator of the stars of night, Thy people’s everlasting light, Jesu, Redeemer, save us all, and hear Thy servants when they call.

Thou, grieving that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe, hast found the medicine, full of grace, to save and heal a ruined race.

At Whose dread Name, majestic now, all knees must bend, all hearts must bow; and things celestial Thee shall own, and things terrestrial, Lord alone.

Hope that leads to joy

One of the main themes of Advent is hope. However, this isn’t an uncertain, desperate hope wishing for a favourable outcome. Neither is it a sentimental hope at the simple birth of a child and nothing more. It’s the assured hope of what that child would accomplish as a man, and continues to accomplish: the eradication of sin, the triumph over death, and the final, full realization of eternal life in the world to come.

Such a hope inevitably leads to joy, another main theme of Advent. “Rejoice! Rejoice!” the carol repeats with each refrain. This Advent joy is most sublimely expressed in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke. It has been set to music many times through the centuries, perhaps never more beautifully than by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. (Luke 1:46-55)

The soundtrack of Advent: it’s a blend of songs both ancient and modern, giving voice to a part of the season that has been largely forgotten. To be sure, it’s a season marked by candles, calendars and the eager expectation of Christmas. But it’s also a time to hear and sing these songs and to gaze up at the stars of night in the winter sky. It’s a time to ponder their Creator who became a baby at Bethlehem and will return as the Sovereign Lord who makes all things new.

Sources and further reading

Timothy Paul Jones, “Why celebrate Advent?” The Gospel Coalition, December 1, 2015.

Eric Metaxas, “What Advent is all about: The bookends of our faith,” BreakPoint, November 27, 2015.

Eric Metaxas, “Salvation history in one hymn: O come, O come, Emmanuel,” BreakPoint, December 16, 2016.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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