Summary: Secular observance of the pre-Christmas season focuses primarily on the First Coming of Christ that occurred 2,000 years ago. As Christians, our focus is on preparation for the Second Coming, which in turn readies us to remember Christmas.
Don’t miss this opportunity. Throughout the year, we get mailings from stores telling us of some special sale or event where they will save us tons of money on whatever it is that the stores tell us we need. It seems that quantity increases tenfold or more during the Christmas shopping time. I am flabbergasted to think what all of this advertising must cost. But the stores have a message: “We have this-and-such product; you need this-and-such; come and buy it.” Don’t miss this opportunity.
I find that the secular celebration of Christmas feels emptier and emptier as each year passes. The trees, lights, decorations, shopping, presents, feasting, what do any of these have to do with the great Feast of the Incarnation which we are preparing for in this season of Advent? I am not saying that these items are bad—they are festive reminders and symbols of the mystery to which we look forward. But taken apart from the context of the event, they amount to nothing more than a winter solstice feast, a “Festivus, for the rest of us.”
Removing Christ from Christmas makes it sound hollow and feel empty. Christmas is just another “Hallmark holiday.” (You all know what a Hallmark Holiday is, right? It’s a holiday created or over-emphasized by Hallmark, other stores, and the news media in order to sell what they have to sell, be it cards, presents, or broadcast time.) Without a baby in the manger, what’s all the fuss about? There’s just a newlywed couple (of apparently questionable morality) huddled up in a smelly barn. Big whoop! No need to get excited. I can experience the modern equivalent by huddling together in a garage with some cars to spend the night. Nobody would care.
We celebrate the season of Advent to prepare ourselves, to keep watch lest, caught up in the worries and cares of this life, the Son of Man come at an hour when we do not expect him (Mt. 24:44). Don’t miss this opportunity. Advent is not a season of penitence, as is Lent. Penitence is a part of our preparation, but it is not the only part. John the Baptist, in his role as the forerunner, proclaimed, “Repent!” Why? “For the kingdom of heaven is near.” There’s an opportunity that you don’t want to miss.
For John, repentance was not the end of the story, but merely it’s beginning. For Christians, the repentance of Lent purges us to be able to come again to the mystery of Easter, our purchase back from the dead; and, while it should not end when we have passed through the waters of baptism, the intent is that we in fact lead new lives. The repentance of Advent draws us to readiness for the Second Coming of Christ, which is not the end of things for us, but the beginning. We celebrate the memorial of Christ’s First Coming most perfectly only when we “await His coming in glory.”
“People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mt. 3:5–6). The people were moved by the word of God that came to John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt. 3:1–2), and they responded. Those who responded with repentance were preparing themselves for the immanent beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, although they did not know it. They heard the word of God, “The kingdom of heaven is near,” and they responded. The demand for preparation is often given without explanation why: Abraham was called to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household and go to the land that God would show him (Gen 12:1); the Israelites were led by the Angel of the Lord to the Red Sea, even though it was not yet parted (Ex. 14). I too was called to leave the place of my childhood, Hawaii, and come to Maryland, to a place I had only visited as a child, to no job, to no friends, and to a church family I did not know and that didn’t know me. And yet I came, stubbornly dragging my feet, and God showed me—as stubborn as I was and with faith as small as a mustard seed— His grace and favor and blessings.
Now John didn’t convert all those who heard him. Based on contextual clues, I guess that the Pharisees and Sadducees did not accept John’s message. What held them up? John’s words are telling: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8). Perhaps a few of them requested baptism in order to fit in with the crowd, but John demanded great evidence for such a great change of heart. Feigning repentance was expressly condemned. Like a priest granting conditional absolution to a penitent, he commanded them to produce fruit, fruit of life and not of death (cf. Mt. 23:27).