Advent, as far as I can tell from participating in the Anglican tradition for five(ish) years now, does some very interesting things to the Christian attitude toward Christmas.
First, as with all high church holidays, it vastly extends the holiday season. Advent begins four weeks before Christmas, and then Christmas itself lasts for twelve days. (Naturally. After four weeks of preparation for the Infant, who wants to cram the celebration of His birth into the short hours of December 25?)
Second, Advent effectively spiritualizes the holiday season. Where there is Advent, there is traditionally fasting or penitence of some kind, which of course is the very antithesis of food-and-gift infatuation. But the fasting is not of the austere kind known in Lent. It’s mild and meditative and anticipatory, I suppose somewhat similar to the diets and work-out programs that brides adopt in preparation for their wedding days. (Though this metaphor, unfortunately, brings us back to food-and-gift infatuation again.)
Third, Advent makes some very curious connections between at least three different “advents” in the life of Christ. It combines within itself the expectation of Christ’s coming in (1) the Incarnation, when Christ was born in weakness in the flesh, (2) the beginning of Christ’s ministry, when He was announced by John the Baptist, and (3) Christ’s future Advent, when He will come with power and glory. So in a way, Advent marks both the beginning, the middle, and the consummation of Christ’s bodily intervention on Earth.
This makes a difference for the songs. Advent hymns are very different from Christmas carols. Christmas carols celebrate the Infant Himself, as He has already come in the flesh. They put us at the side of the manger, in the position of shepherds or adoring visitants. But Advent songs put us in the position of the Hebrews waiting for the Messiah, the penitents at the Jordan River baptized by John, or the prophets yearning for the manifestation of the Lord and begging God to hasten it.
And this is where Advent does its triple duty at a profound level. For in giving voice to the yearnings of those previous ages — the desire for repentance and the preparation for impossible things — we also express our own yearning for the final Advent of Christ, and our ultimate salvation.
There are many Advent hymns, some of which are sung in non-liturgical churches as regular Christmas hymns. “O Come, O Come Immanuel” is probably the most popular. But there are others; “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry,” and “O Come, Redeemer of the Earth” are a handful of personal favorites. These hymns are extraodinarily rich in Scriptural allusions and connections.
Over the next few weeks, as we move so inexorably toward December 25, I will be posting and commenting on these hymns. Their roots in tradition run deep, and their roots in Scripture run deeper. In trying to explicate the layers of meaning, I will be attempting to do what Advent is designed to make us do: Understand what it means that “the Lord is nigh,” and that His way must first be made straight.