What’s Your Favorite Part of the Advent Season?
I confess that I am a profoundly nostalgic man. My daydreams typically focus less on an imagined future and more on a remembered past. I grew up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. White Christmases, sled riding, hot chocolate, wood fires weren’t affectations but normalcy for me. I was blessed to be raised in a loving family. Our feasts were genuine celebrations, not relational train wrecks. Just as I grew out of childhood, my sister’s children were added to the mix, retaining the zeal and wonder of Christmas morning. These are all blessings, blessings I hope my children will get a hint of as we travel back to Ligonier, PA this Christmas, for our family celebration.
Truth be told, however, even going back to my childhood, the power and the glory isn’t in Rudolph and the Grinch, not in game systems or Elmo dolls. For me it’s always been the hymnody. What has moved me most, shaped me most, warmed me most over the years has been singing in celebration of the coming of the Lamb of God. Contemplating His humiliation is a good thing. Thinking through the complexities of His incarnation is a helpful exercise. Remembering our need for a savior is laudable. But singing, that takes it all to a whole other level. When we sing well we bridge that perilous gap between our minds and our hearts and the two become one.
My favorites are those that have been with us over the ages. I love to sing a hymn that takes me not just to my childhood, but to the childhood of the church. Of the Father’s Love Begotten was written in the fifth century and takes us from the love of the Father from before all time to the consummation of the kingdom. It reminds us that we will indeed be singing hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, evermore and evermore. O Come O Come Emmanuel, in a sense, takes us back to an even earlier time. It is to song what Advent is to the calendar, a reminder to enter into the longing of our fathers so that we might enter into their joy at His coming. We too rejoice, rejoice because Emmanuel has come to us, Israel.
Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming, from the 15th century, like those mentioned above, carries a sort of gloomy melody, impressing upon us our own need, echoing the groaning of the creation. In turn, however, it answers the need, reminding us This Flower, whose fragrance tender With sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendor The darkness everywhere; True man, yet very God, From Sin and death he saves us, And lightens every load.
Advent is not designed to be a burden to us. It does not exist so that we might be forced to brave the mall, to roast the goose, to bake, decorate and host like Martha Stewart. Rather Advent is when we remember, and rejoice that the burden has been lifted, that all that we need has been provided for us by our Lord. It is out of that joy, not out of obligation, that we rejoice. Out of that same joy, that we sing. And out of that singing, we are changed.
R.C. Sproul Jr. is rector and chair of philosophy and theology at Reformation Bible College.