I interviewed Benjamin Lipscomb years ago, and I’ve never forgotten his family’s meaningful Advent tradition. That’s why I invited the philosophy professor from Houghton College to share that tradition — and more — with all of us. May we all learn to welcome the Light.
In the traditional Christian calendar, there’s a back-and-forth between seasons of anticipation and seasons of celebration, seasons of preparation and seasons of fulfillment. First Advent, then Christmas. First Lent, then Easter.
This probably says something about my temperament, but I go in for the seasons of anticipation, the seasons where we prepare and wait. Most of all, Advent.
Advent, which means “coming toward,” is an under-appreciated season; it is a time of preparation for Jesus’ birth, a time of anticipating the light of the world, heightened by the darkness all around. It was entirely sensible of the (northern hemisphere) Christians who devised the traditional Christian calendar to have it begin with reflection on our need for light, our need of a savior, and to set this time of anticipation in the dark and shrinking days of December. The main symbols for Advent are, unsurprisingly, candles—more and more of them as the season goes on, symbolizing our light drawing near, coming toward us. One candle goes unlit the whole season: the white candle that symbolizes Jesus’ presence among us. All of Advent is an anticipation of lighting that candle and, of course, of what it means to light it: that God saw our need, and somehow became flesh, became our light.
Waiting is hard; it’s a discipline. But we appreciate more what we take time to anticipate. I wince a little at how quickly after Thanksgiving (and even earlier!) we break out the Christmas lights and carols, because this leaves nothing for Christmas itself, other than one more big meal (and we’ve already eaten too much) and the presents. Have you sometimes heard someone say, with Christmas days away, that they’re ready for it to be over? The effect of our Advent preparations should be the opposite: to make Christmas a tremendous moment of arrival.
Something my wife and I have done, going on 16 years now, is turning off electric lights for Advent. For three or four weeks every year, we live by candles and lamps and whatever daylight we get. We make compromises. To avoid damaging our eyes, we use electric lamps to illumine homework assignments. To avoid burning down the house, we equip the children with electric flashlights. But around the kitchen and the pantry and the dining room and the bathroom and the laundry: we use the pale sun by day and flame by night.
In some ways, it’s romantic. Especially the first week or two. It’s probably our eleven-year-old daughter’s favorite season of the year. But by the solstice, with half a week to go: we’ve been fumbling around for matches and bumping into things longer than we’d like. We can’t wait for Christmas, and the Light of the World. Which is the point.
It’s a resistance effort, trying to preserve Christmas as Christmas. But it has also helped us focus on the distinctive theme of Advent: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” To appreciate the great light, it helps to have walked in darkness a while.