The Angelic Announcement is Ours
Weeks before Advent begins, I can see the slow kindling of the evening worship candles in my mind. It might seem funny to describe anticipating Advent weeks in advance when Advent itself is an anticipation of Christmas. But there it is, my cards are on the table. The white candles are easiest for me to imagine since I am never confident about the colors of the others—darn my “color deficiency.” The green wreathe surrounding the candles does not reveal its age in my mind, but it does when it finally is set out on the table. (Alaina might kick me for that.)
All of this is part of the great Advent tradition. It is something I look forward to with joy. But it is also particularly popular at the Torrey House. We turn off the lights and sing as the candle gets lite. The tiny face circling the wreathe as the darkest part of the house becomes bright. And then at the conclusion, the kids take turns every evening blowing out the candles after family worship (heresy to some, I know). Given the number of times our kids have climbed over chairs and tables it is amazing that we have no fires or facial burnings to report. Truly it is a blessed season. The weekly increased number of candles makes for more satisfied children but no fewer fears of a fire breaking out. And this chaos that is my children fighting to blow out their chosen candle, a visible reflection on the closeness of the Nativity appears.
You see, my eyes are not what they once were. It seems that no matter the size of the candle or the size of the text, my eyes struggle to read the Scripture verses during the first week of Advent. When a light dimmer is available, I will use it gradually less and less each successive week. By the fourth week, however, it seems like I can sit on the other side of the table and still read the Scriptures. The candlelight nearest the end of Advent accommodates my deficiency. Similarly, the Divine Light at the end of Advent is given because of human infirmity. The imagery and practical examples are not lost on me. The great dawning light of Jesus Christ slowly creeps into Advent until the point that it is begging us to acknowledge it and forgo the patient spirit of Advent.
This spiritual yearning that occurs the final days before Christmas reminds me of the carol “Stars of Glory.” Written by Catholic Priest Frederick Charles Husenbeth, the stars are asked to “shine more brightly” to “bring the hour that banished sadness.” The lights of heaven including the moon meant to rule the night (Gen. 1:16) are petitioned to bring about the day of “redemption down to earth.” There is an echoing call for the signs and wonders that accompany redemption:
Stars of glory shine more brightly,
Purer be the moonlight’s beam.
Glide, ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down time’s deepening stream.
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Savior’s birth.
As the weeks of Advent pass, anxiety grows. The practice of patience grows tedious. And no, I am not talking merely about the children’s attitude towards presents. But if Advent is a true season of waiting, then the eagerness to wake up in celebration of Christ’s birth should also increase. We are often tempted to relish the reality of Christ's birth without the waiting. And who can be blamed?
In the commercialized season of Christmas, waiting is difficult. Christmas seemingly begins immediately after Halloween. There are Christmas parties and carol sings that naturally emphasize and celebrate Christ's birth. Some practical measures need to take place to be patient during Advent. Songs like Husenbeth’s remind me there is wisdom in meditating on lyrics that petition the coming of Christ (e.g. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”). But what does it mean to petition the Lord for something that occurred two thousand years ago? For that, I believe we need to look at the Angelic announcement contained in the early portion of Luke's gospel.
In the Field
No Scripture story comes closer to the dawn of the new created age of Christmas than the Shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8). Though chronologically after the birth of Christ in the Nativity story, the announcement of the newborn King has not yet occurred. The birth of Jesus Christ did not come with streamers, fireworks, and a light show that any passerby could see and experience. Ignoring the pending Angelic announcement, the birth of Christ is barely a whimper in disturbance to the flow of history. It is a dot on a very long Old Covenant sentence. But the night does come and the shepherds doing their thing do not know they are on the brink of history:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” — Luke 2:8-15
This bright Angelic announcement is what typically comes to mind when we think about the birth of Christ. The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree is probably only trumped by Scripture in terms of association with this event. It's iconic. And yet, in the great scheme of things, the number of individuals made aware during this announcement was probably quite small. It was certainly small in comparison to the sleeping cities that surrounded the shepherds. The announcement itself was glorious, but the crowd was meager. The announcement truly contained “good news of great joy for all the people,” but it was not universally proclaimed. The shepherds acted on the unique event them. A special event in which "the Lord has made known to us" the birth of the King.
Many of us take for granted that after Advent comes Christmas. Heck, many who celebrate Christmas take for granted that Christ came down to earth for them. Nonetheless, we know when Advent will end. But for the Jews, awaiting the promised Messiah the wait seemed like it could last forever. And I imagine that we sometimes take for granted that we know Christmas will eventually come even if we merely twiddle our thumbs and play along with the church calendar. But I think this deprives us of petitioning God and meditating on His infinite mercy in revealing and announcing His Son. We assume the mercy of God proclaimed in Christmas.
But the truth is that while Christ came down for all men, He has not been revealed in the same degree to all men. The story of the shepherds reveals that to us in some small sense. Armed with this reminder, Advent can become a time of waiting and petitioning that the Lord would once again shine His light and announce His Son’s birth to us in our churches and homes. Yes, the Lord has been born—in our case two thousand years ago—but we are still dependent upon the ever new mercy of God to be familiar with our Savior. We are never too old, intelligent, or even "Christian" to become satisfied with the level of knowledge concerning our Savior.
And so, if we take this Angelic announcement for granted, we will almost certainly not respond with the vigor of the shepherds. Once again, I appreciate the vividness of Husenbeth’s words:
See the shepherds quickly rising,
Hastening to the humble stall
And the newborn Infant prizing
As the mighty Lord of all.
Lowly now they bend before Him
In His helpless infant state.
Firmly faithful, they adore Him,
And His greatness celebrate.
One of the benefits of celebrating Advent is that it truly "puts Christ back in Christmas" in a way that arguing about Starbucks cups can never do. It's not merely the birth of Christ that gets emphasized, but the reminder that we are dependent upon the revelation of God about that very birth of Christ. And so, throughout Advent, we can eagerly anticipate "quickly rising" on Christmas morning. We can encourage our household to hasten "to the humble stall and the newborn Infant prizing."
There is nothing impious about the chaos of opening gifts. There is no shame in lazily staying in bed or getting up early strictly to fix a grand breakfast. When Advent is celebrated correctly, the whole heart is meditating on the magnificent glory of God. "In spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:24), we "bend before Him" and "His greatness celebrate" by His grace. After four weeks of anticipation, the Angelic announcement is once again ours. And though while not as obvious or time-consuming, we certainly will all "adore Him," "the might Lord of all."