Setting the Tone for Advent
The first Sunday of Advent sets the tone for the season by looking forward to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Through the Scripture passages read and the spiritual practices observed, Christians are called to re-orient themselves to a mindset of watching and waiting for Christ’s return, while at the same time evaluating their lives on the basis of Christ’s first coming.
The Scripture and Theology of the First Week of Advent
While there are many traditions and festivities tied to the Advent season, the theological center is found in the Scripture readings read during each of the four Advent Sundays. The theology of Advent is rich with significance.
Old Testament Readings
Readings from the Old Testament during Advent I ground the entire season in the story of Israel’s expectation of the coming Messiah. Isaiah 2:1, in one of the most beautiful and profound images in the Old Testament, looks forward to the one who will come in peace-bringing judgment:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
This prophecy looks forward both to the Incarnation and the second coming of Jesus.
Isaiah 64:1 asks God to “rend the heavens and come down” (64:1), bringing his holy presence to earth. This coming, according to Jeremiah 33:14, is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. The one who is coming—one who is a Branch of David, an Israelite—will bring justice and righteousness: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). This “Branch” imagery is adopted into a significant spiritual practice associated with Advent.
Readings from the Psalms
During Advent I, readings from the Psalms cry out to God for him to act on his people’s behalf as he has in the past, bringing final peace and restoration to the earth. Psalms 122:1 asks for peace to come upon the city of God in a new reign of righteousness on the earth, Psalms 80:1 requests God’s restoration of his people (80:3, 19), and Psalms 25:1 recalls God’s covenantal steadfast love and mercy, which were present from days past, and beckons God once again to remember his covenant and act faithfully on behalf of his people.
New Testament Readings
Scripture readings from the New Testament letters during Advent I bring to mind the church’s life between the ascension of Christ and his return for his people. In 1 Corinthians 1:3, Paul speaks of the church as waiting for the second coming of Christ, continually sustained by God’s faithful provision. Romans 13:11 and 1 Thessalonians 3:9, on the other hand, urge the church to pursue holiness eagerly. Because, as Romans 13:12–14 says, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand,” Christians are to “cast off the works of darkness” and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 suggests that the motive for increasing and abounding in love for one another is so that Christians can walk in blamelessness and holiness before God in preparation for Christ’s return.
Gospel readings for Advent I call the people of God to watchful vigilance for Christ’s second Advent and set the tone for the entire season. Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:24 look forward to Christ’s coming in glory at a time that no one knows. Christians are to “stay awake” (Matthew 24:42) and “be on guard” (Mark 13:33). Matthew says that just as the flood in the days of Noah came unexpectedly and wiped away those who were unprepared, the return of Christ will be sudden, and those who are not ready for it will be left. Luke 21:25 repeats the theme of watchfulness, calling Christians to “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” However, Jesus goes on to add that part of this watchfulness includes introspection: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). A theme of repentance is reiterated throughout the Advent season.
The Symbolic Spirituality of the First Week of Advent
While Scripture is central to the season, there are a variety of symbolic spiritual practices that reinforce the theology of Advent. The trees and wreaths that are symbols of Advent are great visual storytellers to help teach the Christian story.
The Jesse Tree
The Jesse Tree, which is introduced on Advent I, is an artistic depiction of the genealogical tree of Jesus. It is basically an extended genealogy that tells the entire biblical story of redemption. The symbol of the tree comes from Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
During the week following the first Sunday of Advent (and each week thereafter), different ornaments are added to the tree, each symbolizing an Old Testament figure in the family line of Jesus. In the first week, ornaments representing God (Gen 1:1-2:3), Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:4), Noah (Genesis 6:11, Genesis 7:17, Genesis 8:20), Abraham (Genesis 12:1, Genesis 15:1), Isaac (Genesis 22:1), and Jacob (Genesis 27:41) are put on the tree, starting from the bottom and progressively moving upwards. Each week until Christmas, new figures are added as the story of the Old Testament progressively unfolds.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent Wreath is an ordinary wreath with special candles added to it. Three purple candles and one pink candle stand around the outside of the wreath, and a white candle fills the center. Each Sunday during the Advent season, one candle—each representing something different—is lit. Like the Jesse Tree progressively being filled in, the Advent wreath gets brighter and brighter as Christmas approaches.
The first purple candle, lit on Advent I, is called the prophecy candle. In conjunction with the Scripture readings for the week, it represents hope and expectation for the coming Messiah. As the candle burns throughout the week and becomes smaller and smaller, it helps us remember that time continually passes and the return of Christ becomes nearer and nearer with each passing day.
Waiting for Christ’s Return
Advent is rich with theological significance, and the Scripture readings and spiritually symbolic practices of the season help focus our attention on the first and second coming of Christ. The Advent season is a somber time of personal reflection, hope and longing, and joyful expectation for the coming of Jesus.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. Justin wrote On the Grace of God and co-authored with his wife Lindsey Rid of My Disgrace and Save Me from Violence. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.