We are a people of promise.  For centuries God prepared people for the coming of his Son, our only hope for life.  At Christmas we celebrate the fulfillment of the promises God made – that he would make a way to draw near to him. 

Advent is what we call the season leading up to Christmas.  It begins four Sundays before December 25, sometimes in the last weekend of November, sometimes on the first Sunday in December. 

First Peter 1:10-12 is a clear description of what we look back to during Advent.  For four weeks, it's as if we're reenacting, remembering the thousands of years during which God's people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God's salvation for Jesus.  That's what advent means – "coming."  Even God's men who foretold the grace that was to come didn't know "what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating" (v. 11).  They were waiting, but they didn't know what God's salvation would look like.

In fact, God revealed to them that they were not the ones who would see the sufferings and glory of God's Christ.  "They were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (v. 12).  They were serving us.  We Christians on this side of Jesus' birth are a God-blessed happy people because we know God's plan.  The centuries of waiting are over.  We have the greatest reason to celebrate.

And yet we are still waiting.  Our spiritual redemption came to us with the baby of Bethlehem.  Nonetheless, as Romans 8 says, "we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (v. 23).  There is suffering and tragedy still, even for Christians.  Someone we love is dying.  We may be in pain.  Sometimes we have trouble believing God's promises.  In other words, our redemption is not complete.  We are waiting for the redemption of our bodies – waiting for Jesus' second advent, for him to come again.

So here we stand in the middle.  Advent is a season of looking back, thinking how it must have been, waiting for the promised salvation of God, not knowing what to expect.  And at the same time, Advent is a season of looking ahead, preparing ourselves to meet Jesus at his Second Coming.

Advent – Looking Back

Probably the two most common symbols of Advent are candles or a calendar.  That's appropriate, since each is a way of waiting for Christmas.

Advent Candles

Various helpful schemes of symbolism can be attached to the candles, their number, and color.  But here are the basics – one candle for each of the Sundays of Advent and, if you wish, a fifth for Christmas Day.  On the first Sunday, only one candle will be lit, then two on the second Sunday, and so forth.  That's all that's necessary.  But if we want our Advent candles to be more than a centerpiece, we have to ask ourselves, "What makes these more than wax and wick?"

The flame is a symbol of the one who is called "the light of the world."  We who follow him "will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).  As we move closer to the day when we'll meet him, there is greater and greater brightness. 

But we need to remember that our very young children will see only candles.  No matter how much we explain the symbolism, they need some more years before they can comprehend the meaning of the candles.  That's why I always incorporate a manger scene into our Advent candle arrangement.  Tangible is my guiding word.  What a child can see and touch, he might understand a little more clearly.  Tangible things help adults as well.