When my parents first explained Advent to me, they didn’t compare it to a jail sentence.
But when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend from a Nazi prison a month before Christmas 1943, that’s exactly how he described the weeks leading up to Christmas: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other — things that are really of no consequence — the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside.”*
This year, Advent officially began last Sunday, November 29. But as I pick out gifts and hum “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I don’t feel like I’m trapped behind a door I can’t open. What am I missing about Advent?
An uncommon tradition
The celebration of Advent goes back to just three or four centuries after Jesus lay swaddled in a Bethlehem manger, though the tradition later fell out of common practice. As more and more Christians look for a way to separate the spiritual depth of Christmas from cultural commercialism, many are resurrecting the Advent practice. For some, Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter.
During Advent, we remember the centuries of waiting and unfulfilled promises that God’s people endured before Jesus came. Advent also reminds us that we are still waiting, and it challenges us to look at our own hearts. Bethlehem failed to properly welcome a newborn King; how well are we waiting for our King to return?
Why celebrate Advent in 2020?
This Christmas season can feel especially overwhelming. In a time of social distancing and quarantine, it may seem like a slower pace should come naturally. But if you’re like me, extra time at home seems to quickly evaporate through unnecessary (usually digital) pastimes.
If we are going to slow down and celebrate Advent, we have to intentionally carve out the time to do it. So how do we savor Advent this year? How do we slow down and soak ourselves in Advent truths?
Most of us already have our favorite Christmas traditions, and I’m hoping to continue several this year. I think we’re missing the point of Advent if we feel like it is just another Christmas requirement on an already full to-do list. But maybe if we set aside some time — an evening here or there, or maybe 30 minutes a week — to purposely set our focus on the spiritual nature of Christmas, we will be reminded of the peace and joy this season represents. Maybe this unusual Advent season can reorient us around the promises fulfilled by Christ’s coming, the promises yet to be fulfilled by His second coming, and our place here in the middle.
Have you seen that Boundless has a brand-new Advent devotional available as a free download this year? Designed for those of us who have a hard time pausing and focusing during this busy season, each day offers a Scripture verse, a prayer prompt, and a quote from a Boundless author that reflects on that day’s theme. I’m looking forward to trying it!
For other options, here are a few of my time-tested favorites:
If I could underline, highlight, and italicize one resource recommendation, it would be this one. Going through the nativity story piece by piece, Keller pulls out cultural facts and modern application that we have probably never noticed before.
“Come, Let Us Adore Him”
I started reading this Advent devotional early — I will probably miss some days, anyway. So far, I’ve appreciated how Paul Tripp connects the traditional story of Christmas to the broader picture of the gospel and our daily Christian life.
“God Is in the Manger”
Many of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on waiting, redemption, and other Christmas themes have been gathered into an Advent devotional. His encouragement about waiting — written from a Nazi prison — is an unusual and especially meaningful perspective. I’ve only read a few sections, but I have already found too many thought-provoking quotes to include here.
“The Toy Lamb”
As a kid, I probably could have claimed partial residence in the town of Odyssey. My brother and I logged countless hours in the fictional setting for Focus on the Family’s audiodrama, Adventures in Odyssey. Through several storylines woven together, this 30-minute episode explores sacrifice and its connection to Christmas, culminating in a touching conversation between a grieving father and the soldier whose life his son saved. “But you cannot earn what Ron gave to you. It was a gift,” he says to the young, guilt-ridden soldier. “If I were you, I would just accept the gift. And live on.” I cry every time.
The art of Advent
“Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. Art in any form has never come easily for me.
As he sat in a prison cell for 18 months, Bonhoeffer experienced the tension between God’s promises and our current reality more than many of us have. Advent calls for sitting in that tension instead of trying to escape it. We wait, as Bonhoeffer waited, as generations of Israelites waited, for the final promises of God to be fulfilled.
“Advent creates people, new people,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “Look up, your redemption is drawing near. Something different from what you see daily will happen. Just be aware, be watchful, wait just another short moment. Wait and something quite new will break over you: God will come.”
*Bonhoeffer quotations from “God Is in the Manger” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 2012.
Copyright 2020 Lauren Dunn. All rights reserved.