Now that the Christmas lights go up before Remembrance Sunday, it seems that the four weeks of Advent preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ are redundant. Thanks to the whirl of December carol services, it has been noted that there are two parallel times in this season. Outwardly there is a time in which the church engages in mission and proclamation, welcoming those who would celebrate alongside their Christmas shopping something to do with the birth of the Christ child. This proclamation opens to them something of the depths of Christmas even at the cost of anticipation of the Feast. But inwardly there is a time in which the church makes her Advent preparation. What are we doing in this hidden time, what is this preparation?

Advent looks backs in order to look forward. Celebration of the first coming of Christ in the stable at Bethlehem has meaning and purpose because of hope and expectation of His second coming on the clouds of glory. Christmas is not sterile memorial of a thing past and gone, but effectual preparation for what is to come.

Have you sent your cards and done your shopping? If even our Christmas cheer cannot adequately express our love for our relatives, friends and neighbours, how much less can our devotion adequately express our love for God. So Advent begins in penitence: its colour is purple, the symbol for Christians of preparation and forgiveness. We reflect on our lives, and realise our inadequacies. But we do not remain focused on ourselves, for Advent calls us to look joyfully to God, who is coming to complete His salvation.

Advent hymns and readings are thus full of happy expectation of His imminent second coming: “He is nearer now than when we first believed.” “Hills of the North rejoice!” Yet it is important to remember that we do not know the day nor the hour. Advent candles and Advent calendars count down towards Christmas Day, but the Advent season enjoins not to put preparation off to tomorrow and to be ready now.

So we turn again to God’s grace, for we can never ourselves be ready. Called again to prayer and worship, to a recognition of our dependence upon him, and to the sacraments. Especially we are called to the Eucharist in which we are fed as children, looking back with a memory which makes that which is commemorated present; Advent explained and expressed.

Advent causes us to change our attitudes to our lives, which are set in a proper perspective, seen from their end. We are no longer preparing for promotion or success or achievement as ends in themselves but humbly waiting on the Lord, seeking success or promotion or achievement only so far as these things promote His kingdom and His will in the world as all things move towards their consummation in Him.

The great symbol of Advent is the increase of light. Candles are lit in ever greater number in growing expectation of the End. Advent is an extended meditation on the mystery of time. We look back to the moment of the incarnation, the pivot around which world history turns, in order to see the meaning of the flow of the events of human history towards their fulfilment. Assessing the importance of human events in this light gives hope even in the face of disaster and the failures of our politicking which are thereby set in their proper perspective.

Advent is thus the antidote for both frenzied concern and cold cynicism. It concludes in the great celebration of the incarnation; ending at the beginning with a renewed zeal and hope in the life of Christ.