Although the Season of Advent is strongly associated with the celebration of Christmas, its historical development and present significance are multifaceted. Broadly speaking, it is a season of repentance in which the Church savors the coming of her Lord – in the Liturgy of His Word and Sacraments now, and in the hope of His coming for the Final Judgment of the living and the dead. It is not without rejoicing that the Church watches and waits upon her coming Lord, but it is with serious and sober expectation, especially knowing that the present world is passing away.
The best and most appropriate way to discern the diverse emphases and purposes of Advent is to consider the Holy Gospels of the Season, as well as the other Lections and Propers appointed for each of the four Sundays in Advent. It is, after all, the Word of the Lord that is proclaimed, confessed, and prayed which actually constitutes the character and content of the Church Year in every case. There are differences, of course, between the historic one-year lectionary and the more recent three-year series, but the overarching goals and underlying gist of the Advent Season have persisted through those differences.
In looking at the full scope and sequence of this Season, it is clear that the “advent” or “coming” of the Christ at hand is not so much the historic event of His Nativity, nor simply the celebration and remembrance of that singular event, but as much or more His coming now and at the close of the age. As He came in humility when He was born in Bethlehem and went to His Cross, so does He come to His Church by the Ministry of the Gospel, hidden under the Cross in the preaching of His Word and in the Sacraments; and so shall He come in glory for the Final Judgment at last. His Advent thus embraces all three of the ways we comprehend time: past, present, and future.
Two of the hymns of Advent call special attention to this threefold coming of Christ. “Once He Came in Blessing” (LSB 333) confesses that He once came “in likeness lowly” to bear the Cross and save us (st. 1), that He now comes to feed us with “precious Food from heaven” (st. 2), and that He will come “in splendor” to render judgment and bring the faithful into “joy beyond comparing” (st. 3). The fourth and final stanza is a prayer, especially fitting to Advent, that the Lord Jesus would come to release us from our sins and to “keep our hearts believing.” Similarly, “Jesus Came, the Heavens Adoring” (LSB 353) begins by acknowledging that He came in lowly humility “to win redemption” by His death upon the Cross (st. 1). The next three stanzas affirm that He now “comes again in mercy” (st. 2) to comfort and sustain His people with His “words of gladness” and forgiveness of sins (st. 3), and that He is with them “in joy and sorrow” (st. 4). In a fifth stanza (inadvertently omitted from LSB) the hymn declares that “Jesus comes on clouds triumphant when the heavens shall pass away,” and it calls upon the Church to pay Him homage in expectation of His coming, singing “Alleluia” until the dawning of that great and glorious day.
It is in view of this threefold coming of Christ that Advent is not only a season of remembrance but a season of repentance and rejoicing. We remember and give thanks for the promises of God fulfilled in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus, and we rejoice in His presence as we receive Him in the Ministry of His Gospel. But so do we also return to the significance of our Baptism in His Name, especially as we hear and heed St. John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the hope and expectation of the coming Judgment. Thus do we pray in the Collects of Advent that our Lord would “stir up His power” to come and help us by His grace and mercy, and that He would “stir up” our hearts to receive Him rightly in repentant faith.