Christians, and even non-Christians, around the world celebrate Christmas as the day when Jesus, the Messiah, was born in a stable in the little Judean town of Bethlehem. Whether Jesus was born on December 25 or not, his birthday has easily become the most widely celebrated in history.
But what about Advent, the four weeks preceding Jesus’s birth? Do we really have any need to commemorate the buildup to the day on which Jesus was born?
Survey the birth narratives of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as the prologue of John’s Gospel, and you’ll see that the Messiah’s coming was heralded from long ago in the writings of the prophets, and even in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). This shows that Jesus’s arrival was eagerly anticipated by many in first-century Palestine.
The entire storyline of the Bible builds to the climax of the Messiah’s birth in that stable over two thousand years ago. Adam and Eve barely had digested the forbidden fruit when God uttered the promise of an offspring who would bruise the heel of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Then, approximately 2100 years before Christ, God chose one family, Abraham’s, to serve as a channel of blessing for all the nations through his son Isaac and his descendants (including Jacob, later renamed Israel).
Another millennium later, in around 1000 BC, God chose David to be king over Israel. Not only would the Messiah be a descendant of Abraham, but also a descendant of King David. David is dubbed a “man after his [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), however, he is far from perfect, committing adultery leading to his demise in the later years of his reign. This shows that the messianic promise will not be fulfilled in David himself or in his immediate descendant, Solomon, who likewise fell tragically short by marrying foreign wives.
Centuries of Waiting
Before things get better, though, they gradually get worse. First, Solomon’s kingdom is divided after his death into the northern and southern kingdoms. Then, Israel (the north) and Judah (the south) are conquered by foreign powers and taken into exile. The Assyrian exile in 722 BC, and the Babylonian exile in three waves between 606 and 586 BC, humble and discipline the Israelites. After seventy years in exile, some return to the Holy Land, but the glory days of David’s kingdom clearly have passed.
Solomon’s temple is rebuilt (called “the Second Temple”), but this new era is characterized by a gradual lessening of the prophetic voice. In fact, even though the Maccabean revolutionaries restore a measure of political independence from foreign overlords to Israel, the priesthood turns increasingly corrupt — so much so that one group turns its back in disgust on conditions in the Holy Land and relocates to the area near the Dead Sea (the Qumran community, famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls).
All this sets the stage for the Messiah. When Matthew opens his Gospel, he introduces Jesus as the son of Abraham and son of David, organizing Jesus’s genealogy in three sets of fourteen generations each from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Jesus. Luke, likewise, shows that in Jesus, the son of Adam, the Son of God, a plethora of ancient promises have found their climactic fulfillment. John, finally, depicts Jesus as the pre-existent Word-become-flesh in Jesus.
This is the messianic matrix woven by the biblical writers at the intersection of the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. For those who have embraced the message of Christmas — that Jesus is the virgin-born restorer of Israel and Savior of the world — this is also part of their story, a story of redemption received and being called to join Jesus in his mission to the world.
Christmas rightly marks the occasion of the long-awaited birth of the Messiah, but there is so much more to Jesus than the day he was born.
Larger Christmas Story
This is where Advent comes in. While various ecclesiastical traditions have developed distinctive ways of anticipating Jesus’s birth, the underlying premise of the many Advent traditions is sound: Jesus’s birth did not come in a vacuum. His coming was the culmination of centuries, even millennia, of mounting expectation of the coming Messiah and Savior of humankind.
Being mindful of this larger story of God’s promise to his people, we finally can understand the angelic announcement in Luke’s Christmas story in its fuller biblical context:
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10–11)
This is no ordinary child. And this is no ordinary birth. This is the coming of God himself in human flesh. This is the most important arrival in the history of the world. This marks the earthly beginnings of the gospel of God’s in-person rescue of his people from sin, suffering, destruction, and death. And this is far too glorious to contain to only one day’s celebration.
A day as significant as Christmas warrants an Advent of four weeks of preparation and enjoyment. We will marvel for eternity over the coming of God himself to save his people from their sins, and Advent’s four weeks of awe are a good place to start.