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Advent: Season of longing

Channel 4 website
December 2003

For anyone living in a northern European country, Christmas is very 'in your face' from November onwards. TV ads, shop displays and street decorations all turn festive, and in shopping centres everywhere, the muzak jingles along to Santa, reindeers and falling snow.

Not everyone appreciates the festive noise. Trade unions in the Netherlands and Germany have recently complained about the effects of hours of muzak on shop workers, which they say makes them feel terrorised. 'They consider Jingle Bells the Al Qaida of the carols,' said a trade unionist.

In contrast, Christian churches prepare for Christmas in a much quieter way. This is surprising, because Christmas is one of the biggest dates in the church calendar, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Its only rival is Easter, which takes place in the spring and marks Jesus' death and resurrection.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are called 'Advent' – a word which comes from the Latin 'adventus', meaning 'coming'. Instead of plunging into Christmas early, Advent holds back and emphasises preparation and expectant waiting for the coming of Jesus into the world.

In fact, Advent looks at the coming of Jesus in three ways: his arrival as a baby in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago; his coming into the hearts of Christian people today; and his expected second coming at the end of time, in judgment and glory. These three themes make Advent a very rich mixture, with contrasting moods: light and darkness, joy and grief, hope and fulfilment.

The most famous of all the Advent carols, 'O come, O come, Immanuel,' in which the singers sing directly to Jesus, expresses the longing of Advent...

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery.

Advent is also rich in customs and symbolism. There is the Advent Crown, which churches light throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas. The crown is a wreath of fir with four candles around the edge, and the candles are lit successively on the four Sundays of Advent, symbolising the coming of light into the world with Jesus.

Advent calendars, with their little windows which children open every day in December at home, also provide the same sort of countdown to Christmas, even if in modern times they have been 'secularised' into Mickey Mouse or Barbie calendars.

Advent has been celebrated in the western church for something like 1,500 years. It is marked by the colour purple – which is seen as a solemn colour of penitence and preparation.

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