I wrote the following on the penitential character and emphases of Advent for the Emmaus newsletter last year. Somewhat to my surprise, I was taken to task by a few of my colleagues, who evidently felt that I was being a bit of a curmudgeon. Maybe I am a "Scrooge" from time to time, but I have no beef with Christmas (how silly would that be?). Nor do I revel in gloom and doom. In point of fact, I am delighted to rejoice in the Incarnation of the Son of God all year long, 24/365, and I am likewise quite pleased for others to find great joy and comfort and peace and happiness in the flesh and blood of the Christ, our Savior. My point has not been to detract from any of this salutary good news, surely, but rather to serve and support the blessings and benefits of Advent.
I happen to love the Season of Advent with its particular focus on the three-fold coming of Christ (in the incarnational past, the sacramental present, and the impending future). But my personal proclivities are hardly the point. Like it or not, and with or without this particular season of the Church Year, it is the Lord’s desire and design that His coming be preceded and prepared for by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The singular ministry of St. John the Baptist has, in one sense, already served its purpose of ushering in the Lamb of God, and there’s obviously no repeating of that historical work. But the Office of the Forerunner continues in the Ministry of the Word, as the preaching of Jesus Himself is summarized by the Evangelists as that of repentance, and the preaching of St. Peter and the other Holy Apostles was likewise the necessary preaching of repentance unto the ends of the earth. In the way that the Old Testament prepared for the New, and St. John prepared for the Christ, and the Service of the Word prepares for the Service of the Sacrament, so does Advent with its preaching of repentance prepare us for the coming of the Christ, not only at Christmas but throughout the year, even to the end of the age. My goal in writing what follows, and in sharing it again, is to serve that salutary purpose.
The Season of "Advent" originated as a six- or seven-week penitential period, which to begin with had little or nothing to do with Christmas per se, but with agricultural cycles and the changing of the natural seasons (in the northern hemisphere). With the final harvest of the year gathered and stored, there was thanksgiving for the providence of God, but also a realization that the coming year would depend upon His continued provision of sun and rain, of seedtime and harvest. The onset of winter with its dark days, dreary weather, and the annual "death" of the natural world, was a reminder of the coming judgment. These were signs of the end, and a call to repentant faith.
This time of repentance tended to begin in early November, often coinciding with the commemoration of St. Martin of Tours (11 Nov), for whom both Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz were named. For that reason, it was sometimes called "St. Martin’s Lent," a name that helps to convey the sober and somber character of the season. It was not aimed at the celebration of Christmas, but toward the coming of Christ for the final judgment of the living and the dead. Yet, as the celebration of Christmas came to be established on December the 25th, this penitential period could not help but gravitate in that direction. Similar to the way that Lent developed as a time of repentance in preparation for Holy Week and Eastertide, so did "St. Martin’s Lent," or Advent, become a time of repentance in preparation for Christmas and Epiphany.
In more recent generations, much of the original focus and benefit of "Advent" has largely been lost. With electricity and other utilities providing us with light and heat around the clock and all year long, rarely with any interruption, we are not so confronted with the waning of the year and the annual "death" of the world around us (although some of us do suffer more than others from the diminishing amount of sunlight). It is much easier to believe the lie that man is providing for himself, rather than recognizing our absolute dependance upon the merciful providence of God. Likewise, since most of us are not farmers living off the produce of the land, but can simply go to the store and purchase almost anything we want, anytime, day or night, whether in season or not, we do not pray for daily bread with quite the fervency that comes from knowing that our life depends on God.
Even many Lutherans would just as soon leave such penitential emphases to the Season of Lent, and would rather begin celebrating Christmas with the world on the day after Thanksgiving.
We are all familiar enough with the challenges and distractions of materialism and consumerism, of the artificial glitz and glamor that mainly hide a great poverty of soul and a woeful lack of substance. But the Church on earth has managed to manufacture her own distractions and diversions from the matters at hand. Christmas, for many Christians, is caught up in emotional sentimentality, a dreamy-eyed nostalgia for the past, and a pleasant reminder that, "once upon a time," the little baby Jesus was born in a stable. It is viewed and approached as basically a "family" occasion, rather than a High Feast of the Church, the family and household of God in Christ. There will be lots of well-intentioned reminders to "keep Christ in Christmas," but as many or more Christians will forget and forego the Mass altogether, and in doing so will have neither Christ nor Christmas at all.
The Nativity of Our Lord surely makes it clear enough that Jesus is not a warm feeling in your heart, but a true man of flesh and blood, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And this same Word of God (the almighty and eternal Son), who became flesh to dwell among us, continues to sound from the lecterns and pulpits and altars of His Church, and continues to give His true Body and true Blood for us Christians to eat and to drink, for the forgiveness of our sins.
The Son of God was born to die, to sacrifice His own flesh and blood for the sins of the world, to satisfy the righteous wrath and judgment of God, and to reconcile us to the Father. He was incarnate for the purpose and intention of carrying our sins in His own body to the Cross, and, having thus made atonement for us, to unite us with God in Himself. This is what the ChristMass is all about; indeed, it is what every "Mass" (the celebration of the Lord’s Supper) is about.
It is with all of this in view that the sacred Season of Advent calls us to repent and prepares us to receive the coming Christ.
The final Sundays before Advent (which also belong to that original "St. Martin’s Lent") have already sounded the warning and admonition that the Season of Advent now conveys: Be sober, be watchful. Be awake and alert to the coming of the Lord. The end of all things is at hand, and there is safety and salvation in nothing else but Christ.
For the time being, you have life on this earth, health and strength, light and heat, food and drink—only by the Lord’s fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, for Jesus’ sake. But all of these temporal things will pass away; just as you, yourself, will whither and fade like the grass. Only Christ and His Word endure forever. He alone is your life and health and strength, here in time, and hereafter in eternity. It is the light of His Word that shines upon you and keeps you warm against the winter chill of death and hell. It is the food and drink of His Supper, His Body and His Blood, that strengthen and sustain you, in body and soul, unto the life everlasting. And it is the new birth that you have been granted, by the washing of water with His Word and Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, that has united you with the Lord Jesus Christ in the eternal springtime of His Resurrection.
The call to repentance that Advent proclaims is the perennial and necessary preaching of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, who goes before the Lord to prepare His Way. It is an insistent and sober warning that you must recognize your frailty and weakness, your failings, faults and sinfulness, your finitude and mortality. But for all that, it is also a proclamation of the Gospel, returning you to the cleansing and life-giving waters of Baptism, and pointing you to the Lamb of God, who takes upon Himself and takes away your sin.