Crossing Explainer: What is Advent?

If you’ve spent much time around a church during the holiday season, you’re probably heard the term “Advent” several times. But beyond associating the word with the Christmas season, many of us might not have the clearest idea of its significance.

Our English word “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which is a translation of the Greek term parousia, meaning “coming” or “arrival.” Western Christians have historically observed Advent during the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.

But what specifically are we observing? To sum it up briefly, Advent is a season of expectation. In it, we turn our attention to the coming of Christ. And to do so, we look both backward and forward.

Backward

Advent points us to the experience of God’s people before the birth of Jesus. For many long years, they had lived in the midst of the darkness, suffering, and death that was the consequence of sin. But they waited with a longing fueled by many hints, pictures, and promises of a savior capable of their rescue, someone who would bring light and life.

Isaiah 9:1-7, written hundreds of years before it would take place, is one passage that looks expectantly for that coming, so much so that it speaks as if the event had already happened. V. 2 reads this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

As we look back, we now know that long-suffering hope wasn’t misplaced. God was faithful to his promises. And in fact, the reality of their fulfillment likely dwarfed any expectation his people had to that point. He sent his own Son, God himself, to take on our flesh, to live the life of obedience we never could, to die in our place and for our sins, and to be raised from the grave so that we, too, can have new and eternal life.

And so, just a few years after the events of Jesus’ earthly life, the apostle John would write:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14).

Forward

But Advent also points us forward, to the day when Christ will come once again. While Jesus established or inaugurated his redemptive work at his first coming, he will fully complete it at his second. So at present we, too, live in expectation, in what has often been called the “time between the times.” For even if by trusting in Christ we’ve been forgiven of our sin and given the first taste of what our life will be, we don’t yet fully experience the full redemption that he will one day bring about. We still wrestle with our sin, and we still live in the midst of broken world in need of setting right. And so, knowing that God has faithfully fulfilled his promises in the past, the people of God once more look forward in hope to a time in which Jesus will come again, a day that will bring about the scene John wrote about near the close the biblical story:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

The Takeaway

Given all this, the season of advent is an appropriate time to mourn, to recognize that both we and the world in which we live remain deeply scarred by our sin and its consequences. But it’s also a time to express a hope and joy grounded in the sure faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He came once in the humblest of circumstances to begin his redemptive work. He will come again in glory and power to finish it, finally and fully rescuing his people. That is the good news of Advent.

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