One of our musical leaders asked me recently why it is that Christmas lasts only 12 days while Advent lasts for four weeks? There is a vast repertoire of beloved
Christmas music and less than two weeks to sing it, while much less Advent music. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
The Church learned to see the language of time as a means of communicating the Gospel. The Church Year, stretching from Advent, which starts four weeks before Christmas Day, through Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit 50 days after Easter, tells us about Jesus’ life and ministry. You won’t find an exact calendar in the Bible. You will find in the Bible the stories which helped us to develop that calendar, and the truths we celebrate in that calendar. James White, in his book Introduction to Christian Worship says, “The church year is a means by which we relive for ourselves all that really matters of salvation history.”
Historically, Christians observed the season of Epiphany, which celebrates the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ or God’s anointed one, long before either Christmas or Advent. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Christmas emerged as a season of 12 days to mark the birth of Jesus. Technically, Christmas isn’t so much Jesus’ birthday as it is the festival of the incarnation when
God took on human flesh.
Advent began as a time to prepare for Epiphany. It then developed into a 40-day period of preparation for Christmas, parallel to the 40 days of Lent which prepare for Easter. The number 40 has great Biblical meaning, ranging from the 40 days and nights of rain prior to the Great Flood to the Risen Jesus’ appearance for 40 days between his resurrection and ascension. Then it became the four weeks prior to Christmas.
Preparation deepens us spiritually. When I think about it, we spend more time in life preparing for something than we do celebrating an event. A student spends years studying and preparing for exams while graduation takes a matter of minutes or maybe hours. We mark a new year of life with a birthday, but really that one day recognizes 364 days of preparing or living to get to the party. During Advent we prepare ourselves to make room for Christ in our lives. We look not only to Jesus’ coming as a baby born in Bethlehem; we look also to Jesus’ return to earth at the end of time. And so we enter into a season of preparation, of penitence and prayer.
Being human, we prefer the moment of celebration over the long days of preparation. We’d rather party than repent. It is no surprise then, that we’ve developed so much Christmas music and less Advent music. Advent does draw us into the fullness of Christ. I look forward to walking its paths with you.