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Advent: Welcoming Christ into the World

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Any of us with kids probably remember those last few weeks before our children were born. I was stressed out and excited with both of my girls (and it hasn’t let up yet). There was so much to do and as a young dad, I was terrified. Good thing I had Heather to be terrified with me.

Once we found out we were having girls the shopping and preparation began. Pink this, purple that, flowers over here, and stuffed animals there. We baby-proofed the whole house while family and friends called more and more as we approached the due date. It seemed the entire world was falling in on this one moment, this one tiny person who would change our lives forever.

These weeks and months of waiting and expectation for our kids…that didn’t really happen for Jesus–at least not according to the Gospels. In fact Jesus’ conception was nothing if not a scandal. Mary was shocked and overwhelmed when the angel Gabriel announced that she would bear Christ as a virgin. Mary’s betrothed husband, Joseph, was ready to divorce her in lieu of the unnatural pregnancy until an angel showed up in a dream and convinced him otherwise.

"Hey Joe, sorry about your luck but, you have to raise God's kid."

We don’t get a clear picture of what it was like for Mary walking around town as a target for gossip, but I can imagine Joseph and Mary didn’t have it easy socially, even if they were preggers with the Messiah.

The birth of Jesus himself wasn’t a sold-out event either. When my kids were born, we had family and friends in and out of the hospital room and visiting our apartment for days. According to the Gospel of Luke, Christ was born in a “manger” among animals and shepherds. In the Gospel of Matthew, three “magi” visited him (magi are considered astrologers. There is strong evidence that these were actually Zoroastrian priests, which makes the birth of Christ an interfaith gathering!). No family, no big event…the king and creator of the universe and savior of mankind was born to a lowly family, in a lowly place, amid a social controversy that no doubt publicly shamed Joseph and could have had Mary stoned to death.

"Adoration of the Shephards" by Gerard van Honthorst

Two thousand years later, Christians all over the planet celebrate the approach of Christ’s birth as Advent (which comes from the Latin, “Adventus”, meaning “coming”). The time of Advent however, was not always so clear-cut. Advent went through a series of liturgical and developmental growing pains in the many centuries following the rise of the Church in the fourth century. Christians were already celebrating a feast day of Christ’s birth and with close ties in Northern Europe with the Eastern Church, soon a penitential period of fasting rose to prominence. In addition, there was also the Pagan harvest festival of Saturnalia between December 17th and 23rd. A sacrifice was made on the 17th to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and the days afterward were filled with feasts, gifts, and general excess (sound familiar?). The Church soon took this opportunity to sing O Antiphons (titles of Christ) during the Liturgy of the Hours on the sames days as the Saturnalia festival. Toward the end of the 6th century, a longer period extended to four weeks before the Christmas feast in which each Sunday held a particular theme.

Now we have the four Advent Sundays before Christmas. Ta-da!

Our Advent wreath

There are many symbols for Advent, but the Advent wreath appears central. The Advent wreath is actually the Christianizing of yet another Pagan tradition from Northern Europe, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Each candle holds a specific meaning and one it lit each Sunday approaching Christmas. There are no hard, fast rules on colors, but purple and pink/rose are the most popular. The Advent season begins the first Sunday after the feast day of St. Andrew, which is around November 30th.

Several meanings occupy each candle and are meditated and prayed upon after each one it lit. They are:

Candle 1: Prophecy/Readiness: Purple

Candle 2: The Bethlehem Candle/Faith and Confidence: Purple

Candle 3: The Angel’s Candle/ Peace and Enlightenment: Rose or pink (originally called “Gaudete” which means Rejoice)

Candle 4: The Shepherd’s Candle/Joy and Reliance on God: Purple

Many Advent wreaths also have a white candle in the center, lit on Christmas day, in honor of Christ himself.

The evergreen wreath itself can represent the everlasting love of God expressed in the green foliage and the unbroken circle. The increasing number of lit candles from Sunday to Sunday represents the growing light of the one to come who is the “Light of the world.”

That’s the quick and dirty on the season of Advent. A time of expectation and joy for the Savior, it’s an event that we can all understand and appreciate on some level. As parents, we know the feeling of waiting on our child’s birth, but at this time of celebration, we remember the one few celebrated or honored. Jesus, who was “God with us”, was born without fanfare and in the lowest of stations. The irony should not escape us, but for many Christians, the excitement of that birth two thousand years ago has grown cold due to the commercialization of our modern day. But just imagine for a moment the birth of your own children. Imagine the excitement and how it changed your life. Now think about Christ and how his birth changed the lives of everyone.

For non-Christians, this can still be a season of warmth amidst the growing cold, or light within the spreading night. These are symbols we can all embrace together. Just as the Zoroastrians came from afar to celebrate the birth of a Jew who would found the Christian faith, so can we come together from different backgrounds and celebrate peace, joy, and hope.



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abowen

posted December 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm


Nick,

Thanks for that. The notion of Messiah, if I remember correctly, is also an “export” of the Zarathushtis…



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abowen

posted December 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm


Mary,

Thanks Mary. Funny the little things I notice now…



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abowen

posted December 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm


Jim,

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that I have no idea what the universe has planned for me.



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jim wilson

posted December 13, 2011 at 11:13 am


So, not to leap ahead, but, are you working on a grand unification theory to tie all the last 12 months together?



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Nick

posted December 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm


I’m glad you brought up the Zarathushti connection to the Advent; I’ve always found it particularly fascinating. It seems to be a fairly common belief among Christian that religions not validated in the Bible must be from false prophets.

I remember visiting the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and one of the locals there said it is the oldest of the churches because all the rest had to be rebuilt at some later stage. This church however escaped destruction on several occasions for various reasons, but the earliest was the Persian invasion in the early 7th century. It is said that it escaped destruction because of a painting inside of the nativity scene depicting the magi in Persian garb. Well…what was the religion of Persia at the time of Jesus (i.e. pre-Islam)?

Googling the term “Magi” and learning it’s origins adds to the evidence, but all that is circumstantial. What I find most convincing is an early Christian (though non-canonical) source that leaves no doubt about who that author thinks the “wise men” were:
“AND it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem, a city of Judæa, in the time of Herod the King; the wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, according to the prophecy of Zoradascht (Zoroaster), and brought with them offerings: namely, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and worshipped him, and offered to him their gifts.”
–The first Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, Chapter III verse 1.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob07.htm#fn_34



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Mary Wilson

posted December 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm


So nice to recall the lowly birth of the Messiah … I think it’s great that for me as a Baha’i, Christmas becomes more of an opportunity to honor Christ than a time of getting of gifts. It is clever that you dubbed this birth event as an interfaith celebration. Thanks, Andrew – I truly appreciate your illuminating thoughts.



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Editor B

posted December 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm


I’m glad you alluded to the pagan precursors. It’s my understanding that there’s never been any evidence that that Jesus was born in December, and that the date was fixed at this time to capitalize on the old festivals. Weren’t those old festivals inspired by the solstice? The more I’ve learned about it the more sense it makes. So while Christians celebrate the birth of the Son, pagans and heathens (godless or otherwise) celebrate the (re)birth of the Sun. Meanwhile Jewish folks are lighting candles too. The themes are very similar: The birth of light into a world of darkness.



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