Learning to Wait: An Advent Meditation

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.

Last year during Advent I noticed a lot of blog posts, Facebook updates and Twitter tweets lamenting people singing Christmas carols during Advent.

Yes, there are Advent snobs.

But the point is well taken, and one that I've only just recently come to appreciate. Because I didn't grow up in a liturgical tradition I never learned to note or appreciate the distinction between Advent and Christmas. It was all just Christmas to me.

But the distinction is this. Advent is a time of expectation, a season of waiting and anticipation. Christmas is a time of celebration and rejoicing for the gift that is given.

In liturgical time, during Advent Christ isn't yet born, we are looking forward, anticipating, longing for, and waiting for the birth of Immanuel. So an Advent song would be "O Come O Come Emmanuel."
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
Advent is a groaning, the time of being in exile and longing for liberation.

The trouble is, there's not a ton of popular Advent songs. And Advent lasts for four weeks. So a lot of Christmas carol poaching occurs, pulling in songs celebrating Christ's birth into the Advent season. And if you care about such things, if you are an Advent purist, that's a no-no.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many Christians (and the world at large) think that Christmas is only a single day. But as I've written about before, Christmas is a season. There are, as we all know, twelve days of Christmas. Those twelve days--from the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas Day) to Epiphany--are the Christmas season.

But that's not what most people think. Most people think Advent is the Christmas season. But it's not. Advent is Advent and Christmas is Christmas. But in mistakenly thinking that Advent is "the Christmas season" many Christians go ahead and sing Christmas songs early. Because, if you think about it, if Christmas lasts only one day you'd only ever get to sing Christmas carols on one day a year, only on Christmas day. Basically, if you think Christmas is only one day you almost have to sing Christmas carols during Advent if you want to sing "O Holy Night" and "We Three Kings" and "The First Noel" at least a couple of times.
(Suggestion. Why don't we change all Christmas carols to the future tense to make them Advent songs?

"O holy night, the stars will be shining brightly..."

"Silent night, holy night, all will be calm, all will be bright..."

Terrible idea, I know. Just brainstorming here.)
Does any of this matter? Probably not. Few of us are Advent snobs. But all this does make you wonder about our inability to wait. About the Christian rush to a happy conclusion.

Advent is sort of like a lament. Advent is being the slave in Egypt, sitting with the experience of exile. Advent is about looking for God and hoping for God in a situation where God's promises are outstanding and yet to be fulfilled.

So I wonder if our rushing through Advent to the celebration of Christmas might have some spiritual consequences, akin to skipping Lent so we can get to Easter. Might Christmas be too triumphalistic without Advent? Much like Easter Sunday without Good Friday?

Waiting for God and enduring the pain of that waiting is a spiritual discipline. Advent is a time to cultivate that discipline. A time to chasten the rush to happy endings in our spiritual lives.

We must learn to wait on God.

We must learn to celebrate Advent.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

24 thoughts on “Learning to Wait: An Advent Meditation”

  1. Heer's an Advent hymn I wrote a few years ago.  It takes us through all 4 Sundays.  If you like it, feel free to use it.

    It’s Advent-time, our theme is hope
    (Tune: Tallis's Canon, Fulda, etc.) 
    It’s Advent-time, our theme is hope
         in Christ who comes to liberate;
    don’t scan the sky with telescopes,
         but watch the here and now – and wait.
    The prophets listen for the word,
         and boldly speak the truth to power;
    while people think it’s quite absurd,
         the wealthy quake and tyrants cower.
    The Baptist in the desert cries,
         “Repent, return, for heaven’s sake!”
    But to the rulers, with their lies,
         he says, “You vicious brood of snakes!”
    An angel goes to Galilee,
         and tells a girl she’s richly blessed:
    “A virgin birth – how can this be?”
         the girl exclaims, but answers, “Yes!”
    An angel visits Mary’s man,
         and calms his fears about the birth:
    Immanuel – God’s cunning plan –
         to bring shalom to all the earth.
    And so in time it comes to be:
         a baby’s born who lives and dies,
    he lives again for you and me,
         he comes again to dry all eyes.
    Kim Fabricius

  2. Despite my copious amount of copious personal research into Christian belief, until today I didn't know what Advent is!

    Thanks for the heads up.

  3. I wonder how much of this post relates to the fact that it seems many of the newer "pop music church songs" seem to be about escaping to heaven, instead of working down here on earth.

  4. We sing the O Antiphons for seven weeks (instead of seven days) before Christmas... my favorites are O Wisdom (the first):

    O Wisdom, coming from the mouth of the most high;
    spanning the world in power from end to end
    ordering all things for good
    come and teach us the way of knowledge

    and O Dayspring (the last)

    O Dayspring, brightness of light everlasting
    and sun of righteousness:
    come and enlighten those who sit in darkness,
    and the shadow of death.


  5. Heh, I'm almost an Advent snob - I save specific Christmas carols for the week before Christmas (if I can - that dang radio station won't cooperate though!) and for the past two years, I always start Advent with lighting the first candle on the Advent wreath to the song "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and carefully pick out carols that build up to Christmas Day for each successive candle-lighting ceremony.  Of course, I never thought of whether you're able to wait and live in each season as having a spiritual consequence - I'm just obsessed with "seasons" :)  Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  6. Of course Advent is also looking forward to the coming again of Christ, and there are many more hymns and songs that can be drawn in using the Eschatological ideas.

  7. Yesterday I led the adult class at my church in a hymn sing.  I wanted to do some music specifically for Advent, and found that, just as you said here, there are not too many familiar tunes to choose from.  I also wanted to inject the notion that Advent is about expectation that Jesus is coming again.  For that I picked "Soon and Very Soon".  There were a few in the class who didn't appreciate this leap forward into future time.  I added a new hymn called "Christ the Lord" by Sarah Hart and Robert Feduccia which I really liked because it included that look into the future, it is not too hard to sing, and, despite being 'modern' it has the traditional verses of a hymn.

    One of my favorite Advent carols is "People, Look East!" by Eleanor Farjeon.  

    After I forced the class to sing these 5 Advent songs, I opened it up to requests.  The first request was 'Silent Night'.  No Advent snobs in this class!  We ended with a request for the Hallelujah Chorus (there is a simplified version in the hymn book) which made Handel turn over in his grave (and, to be a Handel snob, the H. Chorus is from the Easter portion of 'Messiah').

  8. Perhaps a bit of Advent snobbery is in order, then, not of the voluble and judgmental kind, but of the "witness" kind.  My wife and I are probably too late to lead our own family into the discipline of Advent, but maybe there are ways to steer us gently that direction...?  Great post, informative and thoughtful as per usual.  qb

  9. As in the Sara Miles?

    Sara, thanks for Take This Bread. Just last night my wife, Jana, and I said it's one of the best books we've ever read.

  10. Thanks,
    Richard, for this post on Advent. It is very helpful for those transitioning
    from a non-liturgical background into a liturgical tradition. You might not have
    intended it as such, I seem to misread some of your posts. But this is a good

    are many lovely Advent hymns those of us serving musically within the
    liturgical tradition could not fathom leaving out because our congregations and
    choirs would feel let down and incomplete both traditionally and spiritually.
    If I scheduled 'We three kings' for my congregation to sing on one of the
    Advent Sunday services (apart from our Nine Lessons and Carols service), many
    would feel uncomfortably out of place. Snobbery is not the issue but rather
    both the carol and the story of the magi fit more within the story construct
    after Jesus’ birth and the Epiphany. They are used to singing it well after
    Christmas, just part of our tradition. We sing ‘O, come, all ye faithful’ during
    Advent but never touch the sixth verse until after midnight for our Christmas
    Eve Eucharist. The sopranos wait the entire year to belt out that

    in answer to your question 'Does any of this matter?’ to a lot of people it
    does indeed. It is a part of their faith and cultural tradition. That said many
    of those in the congregation might sing ‘We three kings’ while out carolling or
    down at the pub for the carol sing-along before Christmas Day followed by
    ‘Ding-dong merrily on high’ after a few pints. Mixing the religious with the
    secular. It is all a matter of context. Choosing hymns and carols for our
    Advent services becomes a labour of love as each year our ‘Carols by
    Candlelight’ our regular church worshippers are out-numbered by people who only
    come to church that time of year. A balancing act is essential. We do not aim to be snobs because we have a gospel to proclaim, through all the seasons. (Epiphany has its beauty as it leads up to Lent.) 


    have many wonderful hymns and carols for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany – there
    are a lot of weeks to live through in song and worship. This is probably why
    many non-liturgical faith traditions are not as aware of or familiar with as
    many hymns and carols that fit the liturgical seasons, because their worship tradition
    through the years has not needed them.  More
    contemporary Advent hymns and carols would be welcome – there are times when I
    feel worn out by the Victorians! This year’s lectionary focus is on Christ’s Second Coming: Stuart Townend’s and Keith and Kristyn Getty’s ‘Creation
    sings the Father’s song’ fits in beautifully.


    We are
    also known to poach familiar hymn tunes for a new text that is more refreshing
    and modern.  This Advent candle song that
    our Reader wanted to used today to light the first candle ‘poaches’ the tune to
    ‘Angel voices’:

    candles tell their story

    we watch and pray,

    for the Day of Glory,

    Lord, soon', we say.

    and sorrow,

    and sadness.

    for gladness

    that Day.

    by Mark Earey, there is a corresponding verse for each Advent Sunday candle
    lighting, with the final fifth verse to be sung when the Christ Candle is lit
    on Christmas Day.




  11. Am so sorry for the poor formatting of my post, please accept my apologies! (It looked fine by my Word document.)

  12. Hey Richard,

    I'm a minister up in Portland, OR and love reading your blog.  I'm in a band called Nicodemus Snow.   We have a Christmas Song that we just put out and made a video for it too.  The video was made with flannel-graph.  Its a Christmas Blues song, and thought you might find it amusing.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_prQycUrP1U

  13. That's awesome. Just checked ya'll's site out. I'll have to catch a set at a pub next time I'm in Portland.

  14. Thanks Deb. This is great.

    No worries about misreading tone. It's often hard to gauge. The whole "Advent snob" thing isn't very serious, it's meant to be light-hearted.

  15. Richard,

    For all us plain-church folk for whom Advent offers preparing us for the coming of courageous joy:

    "First Coming"
    by Madeleine L’Engle He did not wait till the world was ready,
    till men and nations were at peace.
    He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
    and prisoners cried out for release.

    He did not wait for the perfect time.
    He came when the need was deep and great.
    He dined with sinners in all their grime,
    turned water into wine. He did not wait

    till hearts were pure. In joy he came
    to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
    To a world like ours, of anguished shame
    he came, and his Light would not go out.

    He came to a world which did not mesh,
    to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
    In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
    the Maker of the stars was born.

    We cannot wait till the world is sane
    to raise our songs with joyful voice,
    for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
    He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!Blessings,George Cooper

  16.  Your post made me think of this recent "news" story:

  17. Usually when people ask if I'm THE Sara Miles they mean the English actress of a certain age....and I have to modestly demur. But I'm thrilled that you and Jana like the book. Thank you! 

  18. Interesting stuff to think about. Thanks for sharing it.  Here's a brief posting about my journey from a pastor fresh out of seminary who forbade carols in advent to one who delights in belting them out during Advent. http://accdocpastor.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-scandal-of-singing-christmas-carols.html

  19. "In liturgical time, during Advent Christ isn't yet born ..." This is simply wrong. Advent is not about pretending Christ is not yet born. It is a time of waiting and longing for the coming of Christ ... and we look back and remember his first coming to inspire our longing.

Leave a Reply