I have always been vaguely aware that the four weeks leading up to Christmas were called Advent. As a child I relished opening the door of the cardboard calendar to retrieve my daily chocolate-like substance, but thinking of Advent as a season is new to me. I grew up in Colorado in the Evangelical Covenant Church, where liturgy took a back seat to individual expressions of faith and piety. My wife comes from a similar evangelical background, and we never openly celebrated Advent in our church traditions. The only ecclesial Advent celebration I remember was the lighting of the candle; but this was an event without context or precise meaning.

At home, my parents made sure we participated in Advent. Each night, the three kids would circle around the manger display and put a piece of straw underneath the wee baby Jesus for every good deed we remembered from the day. On Sunday we’d read from the book of Luke and light the corresponding candle. This all seemed highly ritualistic to me and I assumed it was a ‘family’ thing instead of a ‘church’ thing. I now see that this was more than a family tradition, that my parents were grounding my understanding of Christmas inside the logic of the liturgical calendar. While never expressed as such, our nightly ceremony helped us make proper sense of – and engage rightly – the pervasive anticipation that Christmas builds.

Writing a few years ago in the journal First Things, Joseph Bottum lamented the recession of Advent in the consciousness of the church. He wrote that Advent is a discipline, “a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal.” It is only in a season of contrition, he writes, that the church can understand and appreciate the rapturous joy of the Christmas gift.

I have come to understand Advent as a season of theological throat clearing: It’s the start of the church calendar and a time for preparing our hearts and minds. This throat clearing prepares us for the onslaught of commercialized happy, but more importantly, re-affirms what makes the Christian faith so unmistakable – that our salvation comes to us, without merit, in the form of a baby.

The over-commercialization of Christmas is perhaps one of the most meaningful invitations Christians receive to explain our participation in Advent as a season. Our world has decided that Christmas be equated with consumerism, and the church should offer a counter-narrative framed in the confessional – and yet joyful – lens of Advent. The expectation of Advent is twofold, involving penance and rejoicing.[1] The invitation into the season of Advent is one of confession tinged with exultation.

I now attend a Presbyterian church in Durham, NC, and have come to see Advent not only as a series of weekly candle-lightings that lead up to the Big Day, but as its own season. Advent is more than a countdown to Christmas. It’s a season of expectation for learning what it means to properly wait. This expectation is obviously built on looking forward to Christmas, but that’s not its only purpose. In participating in Advent, the church reclaims not only the importance of Christmas, but acknowledges the darkness that the light will overcome.

My favorite hymn of the Advent season is “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” While I don’t think we need to limit this hymn to Advent, it has become the one I look forward to the most. Built on a somber chord structure, the hymn expresses a twofold desire: that God will come and that Israel will be reconciled to God. That is what Advent is about – a time of lament and confession of our collective inability to live like Christ while rejoicing that it is the work of Christ (and not our own) that redeems the world. This is why it’s crucial to see Advent as a unique season of the church and not merely an appetizer to the main dish.

Our hearts need continual redirection. Our lives are full of both lament and joy, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that the story of our salvation – the birth of a baby in the abject poverty of a manger – could contain one without the other.

Andy Scott works and lives in Durham, NC, with his wife, Annie and daughter, Miriam. He dislikes summing up his life in two sentences, as it seems to do more harm than good.

[1] Obviously we have much to confess, especially coming on the heels of Black Friday/Cyber Monday/ Trampling Tuesday.