Advent is that season marked by the four Sundays prior to Christmas (in the Western tradition). Normally associated with the coming of Christmas, the season can quickly lose its significance amidst the hubbub of the holiday season. Just as our larger society – and we too – allow the glitter, social, and commercial aspects of Christmas to overshadow the central spiritual aspects of the holy day, Advent has itself become more of a festive season, looking to a naturally exuberant birth of a new child. Advent though isn't all anticipatory of a celebratory birth but has mixed with it both the anticipation of the Second Coming, and somber reflection and self examination.
Only the first reading (Jeremiah 33:14-16) for the First Sunday of Advent (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C) speaks to the birth of Jesus, doing so as the familiar Branch of David. Even this reading expands the purpose of this birth to include justice and righteousness and the enduring provision of someone to sit on the throne of Israel. In this prophecy of the coming of Jesus we begin to grasp something larger than simply a baby being born. No, there is reason behind this coming and while we aren't told specifically, there are inherent warnings and expectations for those who would look forward to this birth. This coming will establish a King who will rule with justice and righteousness both good things for the people of Israel and the people of God. The implication is one of salvation, but the flip side of salvation is judgment and punishment for those who do not support justice and righteousness.
The second and third readings (Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13) begin a more plainly self-reflective theme for the season. The Psalm passage is very clear that the writer wants to be found as one of those "…who wait for you…" comparing himself with those who are "…wantonly treacherous." The psalmist asks to be forgiven and then led in the ways of the Lord. During this period of Advent, we are called to remember the steadfast love of God and at the same time, commit ourselves to learning His ways.
The Thessalonian passage continues the theme of learning the ways of God with Paul wanting to supply "what is lacking" in the faith of his readers and his prayer that God will increase their capacity for love for all people. This passage ends with looking toward the next coming of Jesus at which time their hearts will be blameless and they will be holy before God. It is important to Paul that his readers conform their hearts and minds to the love of God so that they will be ready when Jesus comes back.
The fourth reading (Luke 21:25-36) is one of warning and encouragement; one that calls the readers to examine themselves, to make sure they are ready, to make sure they are awake. This reading is the most strident of the readings for the first Sunday and is the one which most clearly demonstrates that Advent is not just a season of birth announcements and celebration. There is a reason this birth is coming and we are in danger of deluding ourselves and those around us if we fail to consider the reason behind this coming and all the comings (past and present) of our God.
Epiphany (January 6th) is often called "Little Christmas" because it too celebrates and recalls the revealing of Jesus in the world. Advent is likewise called "Little Lent" because it calls us to reflect on the purpose of this coming, on our preparation to receive this coming, and our call to live in this coming. To live in this coming is to receive the gift of a Savior-child with all of His demands for self-denial and love for others. If Jesus has come to save and relieve, we accept this coming as our charge to bless and soothe those around us as we live in His life.