It's that time of year again -- Advent. It's always tempting to skip over Advent and jump right into the euphoria of Christmas Day -- after all, the rest of the United States began gorging itself on Christmas cookies in October. But, I believe something is lost when we rush through the beautiful, reflective season of Advent.

One of my favorite elements of Advent is its dual purpose -- it's not just a liturgical season carved out for reminiscing over the days before Christ, but a time set aside to anticipate Christ's second, glorious coming. Like the ancient Israelites we wait in anticipation of an event we can only dimly imagine -- an event where all that is right, good, and truthful will come to fruition in His perfect timing.

Gaining Perspective

"And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." Luke 1: 30-32

Today, the Christmas story is easily taken for granted, even among Christians. Our ears have become numb as we've heard the story countless times and in varied settings -- the angel's appearance to Mary, Joseph's dream, the road to Bethlehem, the lack of room in the inn, the birth in a lowly stable, the appearance of nearby shepherds. The Nativity has acquired a certain quaintness in American culture -- something to smile at while we bustle about decorated shops trying to check every name off our lists. Yet when we take time to prepare for this moment in salvation history, to reflect on the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ, a sense of awe returns. How can we put Christ's first coming into perspective -- and thus better prepare for His second?

There is a special chant sung at every Christmas Eve service at my church that sufficiently wipes away the cuteness of Christmas for me. Join me for a moment in this yearly tradition.

It's midnight. As we enter the church, all is dim except candles twinkling like stars in the night sky. The church -- formerly decorated in purple for Advent -- is now adorned in glistening gold, white, and red. Everything sparkles in the candlelight. Children and families take their seats in the pews, shuffling about, anxious for the ceremony to begin. A man takes the podium and all attention focuses on him. In a low, deep, smooth voice he begins to chant:

"In the twenty-fourth day of the month of December;

"In the year five-thousand one-hundred and ninety-nine from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;

"In the year two-thousand nine-hundred and fifty-seven from the flood;

In the year two-thousand and fifty-one from the birth of Abraham;

"In the year one-thousand five-hundred and ten from the going forth of the people of Egypt under Moses;

"In the year one-thousand and thirty-two from the anointing of David as king;

"In the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;

"In the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;

"In the year seven-hundred and fifty-two from the foundation of the city of Rome;

"In the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus;

"In the sixth age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace; JESUS CHRIST eternal God and the Son of the eternal Father, willing to consecrate the world by His gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and the nine months of His conception being now accomplished, (all kneel) was born in Bethlehem of Judah of the Virgin Mary, made man. The birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the flesh.

(From the Roman Martyrology www.catholicculture.org)

Meditate on that for a moment. This chant in many ways gives us a God's-eye view of history -- its conciseness reveals the relative shortness of human history compared to God's infinite nature, yet numbers like "one-thousand five-hundred and ten" remind us of the incredible waiting on the part of God's people. How long the earth has waited for a Redeemer since the Fall. How long the Israelites waited for a king amid persecution and shortcomings. How much humanity yearns today for a Savior, yearns for wrongs to be made right. When life weighs heaviest on us, and one day feels like ten years, the tension builds as we wonder, "How much longer, Lord?"

Yet this chant reveals that waiting for Jesus' birth was not hopeless or in vain. We know God, in His perfection, would not ask us to wait on Him a single day without reason. This is the purpose of Advent -- to open the doors for Christians to joyfully embrace the tension between hope in Christ and God's "not yet." It is a wonderfully paradoxical season where images of tiny mangers and humble shepherds stand next to celestial beings armed with trumpets and swords. It is a season of preparation, where we fix our eyes on heaven and learn to rejoice in the One "'who is, and who was, and who is to come;'" (Rev. 1:8).

Purposeful Waiting, Practical Waiting

And  it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1: 10-11

How can we make the most of this brief season and cultivate joyful, fruitful anticipation in our hearts and the hearts of our children? Scripture is always a good place to turn. Our church's Advent season is mixed with prophetic readings from the Old Testament as well as readings about the end of time from the New Testament. The Scriptures, juxtaposed, paint an intense picture of an eternal God allowing His plan for creation to unfold for His greater glory and the benefit of those He loves. The purpose of the readings is not to get into lengthy eschatological debates, but rather to prepare our hearts to receive Christ -- both as a fragile infant and a triumphant king. Passages from Isaiah, the Psalms, Luke, Matthew and Revelations are among some of the most popular this time of year.

Long-held Advent traditions, like Advent wreaths and Advent calendars, paired with Scripture verses, are perfect for instilling joyful anticipation in our homes.

Even if it is too late to start a wreath or calendar for your family this year, another wonderful way to put things in perspective for our children -- and ourselves -- is a tradition called the "The Jesse Tree."

The Jesse Tree, named after the prophecy in Isaiah 11: 1 ("There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…"), is a daily, or weekly devotion that has a similar effect as the chant quoted above - it takes the family through salvation history, starting with creation and leading up to the birth of Christ. The family sets up a simple tree, and each day of the month creates ornaments corresponding with major Scriptural events leading up to the Nativity and usually associated with Jesus' genealogy. There are many resources for Jesse Tree's, including pre-selected readings and pre-made ornaments. (View an example of a Jesse Tree here.)

As we build up to these last days before Christmas, may you refrain from rushing toward December 25. Instead, find time with your family to experience the peace that comes with waiting on the Lord.

"It will be said on that day, ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.' Isaiah 25:9

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